Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant via Getty Images(MOSCOW) — Stirred by allegations of corruption, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in dozens of cities across Russia yesterday, in the largest anti-government demonstrations the country has seen in years.

Between 7,000 and 30,000 people demonstrated in Moscow, and up to 10,000 in St. Petersburg. Rallies were reported in 82 cities and towns in total.

It’s unclear how many have been arrested. Independent Russian news agency Interfax reported about 500 people were arrested, while Russian human rights group OVD-info reported more than 700 people in Moscow, 34 in St. Petersburg and between 80 and 100 in other cities.

These appear to be the largest protests since fraud allegations in parliamentary elections sparked uprisings, which began in 2011 and continued in the following year, countering harsh laws restricting protests that were enacted after that time.

Yesterday’s protests were precipitated by an anti-corruption group’s investigation into Russian prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev, alleging that he used phony companies and charities to build a massive empire of real estate and luxury goods for his own profit.

The Fund for Combatting Corruption (FBK) and its leader, Putin-opposition activist Alexei Navalny, released a report earlier this month and called for the protests Sunday as a way to demand that Russian authorities investigate.

Navalny, who has said he will challenge Russian president Vladimir Putin for the presidency in 2018, was arrested yesterday, slapped with a $350 dollar fine for violating public meeting rules and sentenced to 15 days in jail for disobeying police. His organization’s offices were raided by police, who arrested 20 staff members.

The Kremlin dismissed the allegations against Medvedev and has refused to investigate. After Sunday’s protests, the Kremlin also condemned the demonstrations while trying to downplay them.

“What we saw in several places, especially in Moscow — it was provocation and lies,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday, accusing the organizers of tricking people into protesting and paying teenagers to participate.

“We regret that our active citizens, many probably out of ignorance, didn’t want to use the alternative venues,” he said, referencing the spaces far outside Moscow’s city center where authorities said the protests could have been held legally.

While saying the government respects people’s right to demonstrate, Peskov said this march was an “absolutely forbidden protest action.”

State media has ignored the protests as well. Western journalists reporting in the country said Russian television made no mention of the protests, instead covering corruption in Ukraine and South Korea. Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine that aggregates news stories, did not include the protests in their roundup.

Critics in the U.S. were also quick to question the Trump administration’s initial silence on the protests. The State Department released a statement after an American journalist was arrested, but for hours the administration said nothing about the protests themselves — or Putin’s crackdown.

“The United States government cannot be silent about Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protesters,” said Republican Senator Ben Sasse in a statement. “Free speech is what we’re all about and Americans expect our leaders to call out thugs who trample the basic human rights of speech, press, assembly, and protest.”

Later, on Sunday night, the State Department issued a statement from acting spokesperson Mark Toner, “strongly” condemning the arrests of peaceful protesters and the targeting of Navalny and his anti-corruption organization.

“Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values … We call on the government of Russia to immediately release all peaceful protesters. The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” it read in part.

The White House has not issued its own statement, but at Monday’s briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said the State Department’s comment “reflects the view of the United States government.”

Trump has called for cooperation with Russia, especially in the fight against ISIS, and previously refused to criticize Putin’s record on human rights. In an interview last month with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, he dismissed the interviewer’s comment that “Putin’s a killer,” saying, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”

That is a contrast from the U.S. reaction the last time there were major anti-government protests in Russia.

After reports that parliamentary elections in 2011 were rife with fraud, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a “full investigation.”

“We have serious concerns about the conduct of those elections … The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted, and that means they deserve fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them,” she said two days after the election at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Those comments struck a nerve in Moscow as thousands began to protest. Putin then publicly blamed Clinton, saying she incited them.

According to a U.S. intelligence report released in January that blamed Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, that episode, in part, led to Putin’s campaign “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

“Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012,” the report read, “and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him.”

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. military is sending an additional two companies of soldiers to Iraq to help Iraqi troops fighting to retake Mosul from ISIS, defense officials confirmed to ABC News.

Two companies of soldiers is equal to between 200 to 300 soldiers.

Additional members of the 82nd Airborne Division’s second combat brigade are deploying to Iraq on a temporary mission to provide additional “advise and assist” support to Iraqi forces, Colonel Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve told ABC News.

“This is not a new capability,” said Scrocca. “It provides more advise and assist assets to our Iraqi partners.”

This unit of the 82nd Airborne already has 1,700 soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait helping with the advise and assist mission for Iraqi troops.

“The number of soldiers does not equate to the remainder of the brigade as had previously been surmised,” said Scrocca. News reports in recent weeks had said the Pentagon was considering sending possibly as many as 1,000 additional members from the brigade for the advise and assist mission in Mosul.

The authorized troop cap for Iraq is 5,262 though the real number is probably 6,000 with the presence of additional troops on temporary assignment. These new troops won’t count towards the cap because they’re on temporary assignment.

In mid-February the Iraqi military began a final push to retake western Mosul from ISIS after having seized the eastern half of the city in a fierce 100-day battle that began in October. Iraqi troops are now facing stiff resistance from ISIS fighters as they fight through the tight quarters of the older western half of the city.

In Syria there are currently about 900 U.S. forces advising and assisting the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting ISIS, even though the authorized troop level is 503.

The higher number is due to the recent addition of a Marine artillery unit helping with the SDF’s offensive outside of Raqqa and a small complement of Army Rangers sent to the city of Manbij to ensure that Turkish-backed forces and SDF forces do not fight each other.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(TOKYO) — An avalanche at a ski resort in Japan hit several high school students on Monday morning, leaving several injured or feared dead, according to ABC News partner NHK.

About 66 students and teachers were in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, Japan when the avalanche hit, the report said. At least eight high school students were found unresponsive after the incident and 40 others were injured, NHK said.

A doctor must examine the unresponsive students, who were found without vital signs, before an official death notice can be issued, according to NHK.

The students were reportedly taking mountain climbing lessons in the town of Nasu in Tochigi prefecture at the time, according to the NHK report.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(MEXICO CITY) — In a withering editorial published on Sunday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico said that Mexican firms interested in helping build President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall are “traitors to the homeland.”

“It is not two or three, but more than 500 companies,” from Mexico expressing interest in Trump’s proposed border wall, the editorial says. “For them, the end justifies the means.”

Building a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico was estimated by congressional Republicans to cost $12 billion to $15 billion.

After repeatedly claiming that Mexico would pay for the wall, President Trump requested $2.6 billion to start the initial planning and construction in his 2018 budget request. Congress is expected to take up the proposed budget before the end of the fiscal year in September.

The editorial, published in the Archdiocese’s weekly publication Desde la fe, lambasted the wall as “an open threat that violates relations and peace.”

Trump made building a wall on the southwestern border a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, saying he wants a concrete barrier as high as 55 feet tall that he has described as “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful.”

The wall has sparked backlash in Mexico, where leaders have spoken out against it publicly. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has said his country will not pay for “any” wall on the U.S. border and said he rejects Trump’s decision to go ahead with the plan.

“Joining a project that is a serious affront to dignity, is to shoot yourself in the foot,” the Archdiocese editorial reads. “The wall is a monument of intimidation and silence, of xenophobic hatred.”

“Any company with the intention to invest in the wall of the fanatic Trump would be immoral, but above all, its shareholders and owners should be considered traitors to the homeland,” the editorial concludes.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — Hundreds of people have been arrested in Russia in a crackdown after thousands gathered for massive anti-corruption protests Sunday in the nation’s capital.

Huge crowds gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square for a protest against the Russian government, and about 500 people were arrested in the wake of the protests, according to Interfax, a privately-held, independent Russian news agency.

Protesters posted photos on social media, some of them selfies, showing people getting taken away by police. Some included playful or self-deprecating remarks.

Привезли в автозак на Манежке. Сидим ждём.

— Николай Ляскин (@nlyaskin) March 26, 2017

Меня с Шишкиным задержали, на улице людей бьют

— Абсурд в цене (@brusentsevsasha) March 26, 2017

Старичку уступили место в автозаке ;).

— Plushev (@plushev) March 26, 2017

Alec Luhn, a reporter for The Guardian, a British-based media outlet, wrote on Twitter that he was arrested at the rally and charged with “administrative violation for participating in unsanctioned rally,” despite showing press credentials to police.

After 4hours I’m being charged w/administrative violation for participating in unsanctioned rally even tho I showed journalist accreditation

— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) March 26, 2017

Leader of the anti-corruption movement Alexei Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, told Interfax the opposition leader had been placed under arrest until Monday, when a hearing is to be held.

The demonstrations followed demonstrations in neighboring Belarus on Saturday against that country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the small, landlocked country since 1994.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(BERLIN) — Exit polls in the German state of Saarland suggest German Chancellor Angela Merkel has won that state’s election with September’s national vote approaching. Merkel is running for a fourth term as chancellor.

The incumbent Christian Democrats (CDU) are projected to win 41 percent of the votes, ahead of Social Democrats (SPD), who currently sit at 29.5 percent. That marks a nearly six percent improvement from the 2012 elections in that state for Merkel’s party, according to BBC News.

The Social Democrats are led by nominee Martin Schulz.

The right-wing populist party running against Merkel and Schulz, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is expected to secure 6 percent of the vote in Saarland.

Saarland is located in the south western part of Germany. The polls closed in the small German state at 4 p.m. ET (16:00 GMT).

More state elections will take place before the country’s federal election on September 24.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSUL, Iraq) — Iraqi military officials are shooting down speculation that US air strikes killed hundreds of civilians according to a BBC News report. Instead, they say so-called Islamic State (IS) is responsible for the deaths of those civilians.

The US government announced Saturday it was investigating a March 17 air strike that targeted Mosul in response to allegations of civilian casualties. Iraq’s military believes explosive booby traps set off by IS are what caused the deaths.

Those who died were in west Mosul, where the offensive to retake from IS what was once Iraq’s second-largest city continues.

The US Central Command claimed it was looking into the allegations of civilian casualties after they determined an air strike was carried out on March 17 “at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties”.

BBC reports that some media outlets indicated more than 200 bodies were pulled out of a collapsed building. However, the details of the allegations are somewhat inconsistent.

The Iraqi military released a statement on its Facebook page that denies the air strikes caused the civilian casualties in the neighborhood of al-Resala. It was reported that the air strike occurred in the neighborhood of Jadideh.

The statement continues that the military checked a house “reportedly targeted by an air strike and they found out that the house was completely destroyed and there was no sign that it was destroyed by a strike”.

A detonated booby-trapped vehicle was located by the house, according to BBC News, and the military says eyewitnesses claim IS used houses to fire at security forces.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — An American counter-terrorism airstrike conducted last weekend in eastern Afghanistan killed a senior al Qaeda leader named Qari Yasin, the Pentagon announced Saturday.

Yasin is responsible for plotting a number of high-profile al Qaeda terror attacks, including the 2008 bombing of a Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, and a 2009 bombing that targeted a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan.

In addition to the dozens of innocent victims killed in these attacks, the 2008 bombing in Islamabad killed two U.S. military personnel: Air Force Maj. Rodolfo I. Rodriguez and Navy Cryptologic Technician Third Class Petty Officer Matthew J. O’Bryan.

“The death of Qari Yasin is evidence that terrorists who defame Islam and deliberately target innocent people will not escape justice,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement.

Yasin, from Balochistan, Pakistan, had ties to the Pakistan-based terror organization Tehrik-e Taliban.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) — The United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) only member of parliament has quit the party to become an independent.

Douglas Carswell, who was with the Conservatives until switching to the Brexit-supporting UKIP in 2014, announced the news on his website on Saturday. The 45-year-old said he joined UKIP “because I desperately wanted [Britain] to leave the [European Union. Now we can be certain that that is going to happen, I have decided that I will be leaving UKIP.”

“UKIP might not have managed to win many seats in Parliament, but in a way we are the most successful political party in Britain ever,” Carswell said. “We have achieved what we were established to do – and in doing so we have changed the course of our country’s history for the better.”

Carswell’s news comes ahead of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to trigger Article 50 on Wednesday, which will begin formal negotiations of the U.K.’s exit from the EU.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →

Main_sail/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. military admitted that an airstrike in Iraq on March 17 corresponds to a site where 200 civilians allegedly died, but said it is still assessing the particulars of the strike and the validity of allegations of civilian casualties.

“An initial review of strike data from March 16-23 indicates that, at the request of the Iraqi Security Forces, the coalition struck ISIS fighters and equipment, March 17, in West Mosul at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties,” stated a media release from the task force Saturday. A formal review of the March 17 operation “is underway to determine the facts surrounding this strike and the validity of the allegation of civilian casualties,” the release said.

The military’s release came after it earlier announced a review of whether any of three airstrikes in Syria and Iraq over the past week were linked to reported deaths of hundreds of civilians.

In addition to the March 17 airstrike in western Mosul that reportedly killed 200 civilians, Central Command also said this week it is reviewing a March 16 airstrike near a mosque in al-Jinnah, Syria, that is said to have killed dozens, and an airstrike Monday, March 20, on a school building outside of Raqqa, Syria, that may have also killed dozens of civilians fleeing local fighting.

The March 17 strike targeted three adjoining houses. Local news reports indicate ISIS may have used civilians in the area as human shields in an effort to guard against airstrikes on the buildings. The Iraqi military’s media operations center has claimed that ISIS was responsible for the civilian deaths.

Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the operation against ISIS in Iraq, Syria and beyond, noted on Friday that ISIS has previously demonstrated disregard for civilians and civilian facilities by “using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals and religious sites.”

Scrocca added there have been instances where ISIS forced families from their homes to booby-trap them with explosives to delay Iraqi forces.

The Central Command’s release on Saturday asserted that the coalition fighting ISIS “respects human life, which is why we are assisting our Iraqi partner forces in their effort to liberate their lands from ISIS brutality. Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians.”

“Coalition forces comply with the Law of Armed Conflict and take all reasonable precautions during the planning and execution of airstrikes to reduce the risk of harm to civilians,” the statement said.

The U.S.-led coalition has conducted more than 19,000 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since the summer of 2014.

U.S. Central Command has also opened a credibility assessment into an airstrike Monday night, March 20, that targeted a school building near Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital inside Syria.

The activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that an airstrike on the school killed 33 civilians who had been seeking shelter from local fighting.

And, U.S. Central Command is conducting a full investigation and credibility assessment of an airstrike on March 16 in the village of al-Jinnah in northwestern Syria.

U.S. officials said that airstrike killed dozens of al-Qaeda militants who had gathered for a meeting in a building near a mosque across the street. They emphasized that the mosque was not struck and that the building was not affiliated with the mosque. However, locals said that dozens of worshipers were killed in the airstrike and that the targeted building was, in fact, a mosque.

A military spokesman confirmed that earlier this week Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, ordered a full investigation into the circumstances of the mission.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Read More →