Armed men have taken control of two airports in the Crimea region of Ukraine as tension escalates. The new Ukrainian government, which seized power last weekend, described the move as an invasion and occupation by Russian forces. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the region, denied its forces were involved in seizing the airports. Crimea is the only Ukrainian region that has an ethnic Russian majority. It was a Russian territory until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, during the Soviet era. Protests have been held in Crimea condemning the ouster of Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Genadiy Vlasof, member of Russian Block Group: “The new authority in Kiev includes — not all of them, but some — people who were wearing masks and shouting, 'Moskals on the knife!' on the square, who fueled national anger, who are enemies of every Russian-speaking person on Ukrainian territory, who are realistically capable of using force to kill people living in south-southeastern Ukraine.”
Yanukovych is now in Russia and is expected to hold a news conference today. Meanwhile, the United States is rejecting claims that the change in power in Ukraine constitutes a coup. On Thursday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Yanukovych had “abdicated his responsibilities” and “undermined his legitimacy” by fleeing Kiev. Carney outlined U.S. plans to work with the new government.
Jay Carney: When it comes to U.S. assistance, we are continuing to consider a range of options, Jim, including loan guarantees to support Ukraine economically. The next step is for the new government to resume talks with the IMF. And as the government engages the IMF, we will also begin taking steps in coordination with multilateral and bilateral partners as well as with the new government.”
In the latest disclosure based on the leaks of Edward Snowden, The Guardian reports Britain’s spy agency GCHQ intercepted millions of people’s Yahoo webcam chats and stored still images of them. The surveillance program, codenamed Optic Nerve, collected images from the webcam chats of more than 1.8 million users globally in a six-month period in 2008 alone. Many of the images were sexually explicit.
In Iraq, at least 42 people died Thursday when a motorcycle rigged with explosives blew up near a secondhand market in Sadr City, Baghdad. At least 51 people were injured. In a separate attack in Sadr City, a bomb planted on a minibus killed five civilians and wounded 14. More than 1,650 people have been killed so far this year in Iraq, with 680 killed since the beginning of February.
Israeli forces opened fire and killed a Palestinian man in the West Bank Thursday after the man had barricaded himself inside his house to avoid arrest. The Palestinian Authority described the killing as an assassination, saying Israeli forces shelled the house, destroyed a part of it and then stormed it. The killing came on the same day that Amnesty International accused Israeli forces of using excessive violence in the West Bank, killing dozens of Palestinians over the past three years in what, they said, might constitute a war crime.
Protests and vigils were held across the globe Thursday calling on Egypt to free four Al Jazeera journalists, three of whom have been charged with aiding a “terrorist organization.” Osama Al Saeed is head of public relations at Al Jazeera.
Osama Al Saeed: “What we’ve been seeing over a number of weeks has been massive support around the world for our journalists to be freed by the Egyptian authorities, and there’s a further ramp-up today. There’s action taking place in over 30 countries. The hashtag #freeAJstaff is trending worldwide again. And we think that pressure will help in liberating our staff members from their jail cells in Cairo.”
One of the Al Jazeera journalists, Abdullah Elshamy, has been held since August. His wife Jihad Khaled, spoke in Doha on Thursday.
Jihad Khaled: “Egyptian authorities are treating Abdullah as a detainee from Rabaa like other detainees. Abdullah should be treated as a journalist, but they are not treating him on this basis. The charges against him are the same as other people (detained from Rabaa). He was there to cover the sit-in, no more. As a proof to this, Abdullah was originally at Abuja office and was called by the network to provide coverage from Egypt. So, why are you not treating him as a journalist?”
In Haiti, some 2,000 people marched in Port-au-Prince to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup that ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On Feb. 29, 2004, Aristide was forced to flee Haiti in what he called a kidnapping by the U.S. government. The protesters denounced the current government of Michel Martelly and called for his resignation.
In news from New Mexico, authorities have confirmed 13 employees were exposed to radiation during a recent leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, nation’s first underground nuclear waste dump. Authorities did not give details on the level of contamination detected. The radiation leak was detected on February 14, but it is still not known what caused it.
President Obama has tapped a former lobbyist who led efforts to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act legislation to be the new deputy U.S. trade representative. If confirmed, Robert Holleyman will helped lead efforts to pass the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Critics of the TPP say the trade pact includes parts of the SOPA bill that was rejected by Congress last year after massive online protests.
In prison news, Solitary Watch is reporting eight to nine prisoners held at a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, are on hunger strike and are being force-fed. More than 400 prisoners at the supermax spend between 22 to 24 hours a day locked alone in concrete “boxcar” cells without access to a window.
There is a new development in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed 10 years ago after he was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. For years, family members and death penalty opponents have argued that he was innocent. The New York Times is now reporting newly discovered evidence suggests that the prosecutor in the case may have concealed a deal with a jailhouse informant whose testimony helped put Willingham to death. Attorneys seeking a posthumous exoneration for Willingham say they have found evidence that the informant Johnny Webb gave his testimony in return for a reduced prison sentence.
In financial news, Bank of America is contesting a $2.1 billion fine sought by the Obama administration over defective mortgages sold by the bank’s Countrywide unit. Bank of America is arguing the fine should be based on the amount of profit it made by selling the flawed loans, which it says was nothing.
Italy’s top criminal court has thrown out the convictions of five Italian agents for their role in the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The cleric, Abu Omar, was snatched from the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. Twenty-two CIA members have been convicted in absentia in the case. But on Monday, the court overturned the convictions of Italy’s former military intelligence chief and four others, saying they were invalid because the case involved secret information.
The Interior Department has endorsed seismic exploration for oil and gas in Atlantic waters. The American Petroleum Institute praised the move that could open up new areas for drilling, but the conservation group Oceana said exploration “could be a death sentence for many marine mammals.”
Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are gearing up for a series of protests known as “XL Dissent” in Washington this weekend. More than 1,000 students and youth will march from Georgetown University to the White House. Some 300 of the participants are expected to risk arrest in a sit-in outside the gates. Organizers say it will likely be the largest youth sit-in on the environment in a generation.
Consumer advocates at the Environmental Working Group are warning that a chemical used to make yoga mats and flip-flops can now be found in more than 500 food items. The chemical, azodicarbonamide, is often used in bread, croutons, pre-made sandwiches and snacks made by many major brands, including Pillsbury, Nature’s Own, Sara Lee, Kroger and Little Debbie. The restaurant chain Subway recently announced it was phasing out the use of the chemical after an online campaign. The chemical is not approved for food use in Australia and Europe.
Fernando González, one of the members of the Cuban Five, has been released after more than 15 years behind bars in the United States. González was transferred Thursday to an immigration prison pending deportation back to Cuba. His mother spoke in Havana praising the release of her son
Magali Llort: “For the Cuban people who have been fighting for a long time for this return, this is also a victory.”
The Cuban Five were arrested in 1998 and later convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. They say they were not spying on the United States, but trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups. Another Cuban Five member was released in 2011; three others remain in prison.