Head of the Sverdlovsk Fund of Spetsnaz Veterans: “I Help Volunteers Go to Fight in Ukraine” By Ilya Kazakov Sverdlovsk residents are traveling to Ukraine to fight and are dying in the war; this is already a fact. In August, we recall, Alex Zasov, a contract soldier from Novouralsk, was killed in southeastern Ukraine; the Russian president recently decorated him posthumously with the Order of Courage.On October 15, two Urals residents—Vasily Zhukov from the Sverdlovsk village of Belokammeniy, and a 37-year-old native of the village of Novoutkinsk, Gennady Korolev—were killed after being hit by an explosive shell from a Ukrainian tank. Another man in that battle, wedding photographer Mikhail Laptev from Kamyshlov, lost a leg.On October 30, Donetsk airport police shot and killed former Yekaterinburg policeman Paul Bulanova, and for almost a month and a half, his relatives were unable to bring his body back from Ukrainian territory.On December 14 in Yekaterinburg, Urals-region volunteers were solemnly decorated, having distinguished themselves in combat in Ukraine and returned home safe and sound.We found the man who organized this award. He works, as he states himself (and by the accounts of several relatives of the boys who have died over there), to send Sverdlovsk’s men to the civil war.Who is he? Why does he do this? And is it true that volunteers get the war a lot of money? The answers come in an exclusive interview with the head of the Sverdlovsk Fund of Special Forces Veterans, Vladimir Yefimov.Q. Why do you head up the special forces veterans’ fund? What issues do you work on?A. In 1993, I commanded a combined detachment of the Sverdlovsk region in the storming of the White House in Moscow. At the direction of Boris Yeltsin, I participated in the suppression of the „red-brown” coup.In 1994, the cossacks elected me ataman [head] of the Isetsky Line Cossack Army [a prominent Cossack paramilitary organization based in the Urals region]. In 1998, I became the head of the oblast Fund of Special Forces Veterans. Since 2000, I’ve been retired.About 1,500 people from throughout the Urals participate in the work of the fund. We engage in military-patriotic education, the socioeconomic rehabilitation of war veterans. But now, given the situation in the country, we have no time for social activities. We help with sending volunteers to Ukraine.Q. When did you begin to help in sending the Urals men to the war?A. After the Maidan, but before the reunification of Crimea [to Russia]. I called up the veterans themselves, and said, “Dmitrich, what’s going on?! Let’s go, it’s necessary to restore order!”  I took time to weigh everything. And they could not resist and they rushed off at their own risk. There is a good old saying: If it’s impossible to prevent a chaotic situation, then it’s better to lead it. After that, I began to prepare the first group to go to Crimea.The first to go were the guys from Khanty-Mansiysk: special forces veterans. Cossacks. They themselves worked in shifts to prepared the GAZ-66 [military truck], and three jeeps equipped to the nines. They paid for it all out of their own pockets. They took me and we drove off. In Crimea, I have many relatives and friends.When we reached Kerch, I organized everything—gave the fellows responsible guys who connected them to the base, and in the end they were „polite people.” [This is a label used for the armed men in uniforms similar to the Russian and unmarked; they participated in Crimea until its formal re-unification to Russia—author’s note.]When Crimea became Russia, they returned. They received great satisfaction. Some went for the adrenaline, some went just not to be bored. From that moment I seriously took up sending volunteers to Ukraine, including to Lugansk and Donetsk.Q. How are the volunteers selected?A. People come to us at the fund. They write to me a declaration: „Please provide me with support in sending me to provide help to the struggling people of Novorossiya.” Together with this declaration, the man fills out a questionnaire with his data: who he is, where, where he is from, where he served [in the military], what combat experience he has. If he is a member of the Fund, such a profile already exists in our database.After we read his application we conduct an interview. If a person is suitable as a combatant, I include him in the group to send. To all such people we give a „volunteer’s pass.” That is, specifically, “volunteer,” not “militiaman.” This is an official paper with the stamp of the Fund, so that no one later ties us to mercenarism.Q. Who goes to Ukraine?A. All kinds of people. Guys from 35 to 55 years are the most seasoned age group. There are younger guys, too. Since June I’ve sent six groups, each of 15 to 30 people, to Donetsk and two groups of 30 people to Lugansk. There are also the well-off guys who can equip themselves. They were completely useless. Some of them hadn’t even served in the army.There were even some who said, „Take me—I’m a drug addict. Maybe there I can get off the needle under the stress of that situation.”I’m not the only one sending. Others doing it are the Afghan veterans’ groups, the Chechnya veterans. We don’t discuss with each other the numbers, but we keep in touch by phone about those who have been rejected—for example for criminal records, for objective reasons—so that they don’t go to war through others. Still, to fully control the flow of departing volunteers, of course, is impossible: The border is open.Q. It’s said that guards of private security firms are sent there in an organized way. Is that so?A. First time I heard about it. But I don’t rule out that they can go there. They’re not connected with the state; their status as volunteers is assured. But, of course, they have few skills. Not everyone can be qualified. Over there they need guys with combat experienceQ. And active-duty military, Emergency Situations (Ministry) personnel, or police—during their holidays, can they go?A. Russian legislation does not prohibit this. If there is a specific, direct prohibition [from the agency or unit commander], then they can’t. If not, they can go. The need for professionals there is great. But you understand that within the government, everything has been thought through. If someone gets caught over there, he will have long before that already have been dismissed, and it’s possible even that the documents for that eventuality will have been prepared in advance. That’s what I think [laughs].Q. Do you somehow divide up the professionals and useless? Or they are on the same team?A. I immediately separate the flies from the cutlets: Special forces and elite go to Donetsk. Cossacks and newcomers without combat experience—to Lugansk.Q. How much does it cost to provide one volunteer?A. On average, a soldier with equipment and salary, which I estimate will hold in the future, goes for around 350 thousand [rubles; at recent exchange rates, equivalent to $5,500 to $6,500] per month. This is the cost of special forces work. One armored vest costs [$1,200]; night-vision binoculars are $1,500. And there is more winter clothing, footwear, food, medicines. This is really the market  price.Q. Of that amount, how much would be salary?A. Now there are even informal wage standards. I am told that Pyatigorsk Cossacks get paid somewhere around 60,000 to 90,000 rubles a month [$1,000 to $1,500] for enlisted personnel; and 120,000 to 150,000 [$2,000 to $2,600] for officers. Now, they say, salaries have grown as high as 240,000 [$4,000].Q. And why a salary? After all, they are all volunteers, as you say.A. I think that people have to be paid. After all, they are risking their lives. With the help of a salary, the professionals can be attracted to the war. They come, and their eyes sparkle. They accomplish their mission and they don’t feel mistreated. [He pats his pocket.]Q. Who pays all of this?A. We get help, for everything except for the salaries, from volunteers and activists. They find and organize KamAZes [cargo trucks] with humanitarian aid. They find people willing to help with equipping the fighters. We don’t have a formal [bank] account for assisting the volunteers. So often, this is the mechanism we use: We bring our sponsors with the bills for what we need. After it’s paid, we get a chit for the goods with which we pick them up. It also can happen that someone will have 100,000 rubles [$1,700] and will call me and say, “Let’s go buy them something.” Then we’ll take him with eight volunteers and each one can choose what he needs.Q. Do you also buy weapons?A. No, we don’t buy weapons. How would we buy them here? All of that is handled on the receiving side. You arrive, you sign, you receive. You’re coming back, you hand it over. They’re very strict with this.Q. Our government is sponsoring you?A. So far, it doesn’t help at all. In June I wrote a letter to the [Russian] presidential representative for the Urals Federal District, Igor Kholmanski. There I clearly explained that it is necessary to create a [government-registered] social organization to support the volunteer movement in Donbas. Officially.That would let us open a bank account, to which businesses could transfer money. We could then establish official relationships with our volunteers—negotiated contracts. Not to fight, but to provide humanitarian assistance [laughs].The law is like a post—you cannot step over it, but you can step around it. Officially, the organization would select candidates for humanitarian service. We need our own training center, where it would be possible to train people and, in the course of training, assign each person a military specialty.Q. And what did the presidential representation say to you?A. „At the moment, consideration of the initiative is not possible. Thank you for your patriotic impulse.”Q. And how do the volunteers get to their duty station?A. The first time they went under the guise of the Red Cross. They would get from the local branch a document that they were escorts [for a convoy]. When they arrived, they just stayed there. They were given weapons and put into combat missions.Now we also load the boys into the trucks with the humanitarian aid and send them. On average, they go for a month. Some do it while on vacation, some probably just to earn money. I ask them not to tell me how much they receive. It doesn’t concern me.Q. After that, you are no longer responsible for their fate?A. We don’t have the money to bring the body back to Russia or to help the relatives. I immediately warn all those who are leaving about this. They have no illusions. But where we can, we do provide help.Q. And how many Russian volunteers were killed in the Donets Basin, including the Urals? Do you have this data?A. I don’t have it. And I think no one has it. There is no central coordination in the sending of people, there is no general assembly point, so there are neither statistics nor an understanding of the scale.Q. Don’t you consider it necessary to investigate the killing of each volunteer? To clarify the reason for his death?A. It’s essential to understand. The commander of a normal unit keeps a log of operations in which he puts the intelligence information, each battle, all the plans, and the particulars of all irretrievable losses. But it must be understood that under the conditions of war, it’s not always possible to establish the exact cause of death.Q. Can the relatives of those killed get access to this information? Can they learn how and where their relatives were killed?A. We tell them what happened.Q. So why do all these volunteers still go there?A. Our press and television present the dramatic facts. The Russian people cannot tolerate the terror that the fascists have staged there [in Ukraine]. Killing women, children and the elderly. Most of those who go are sensitive and empathetic; they want to help. This is especially true for people from 40 to 60 years of age, who were brought up under Soviet traditions. My blood boils when I see an artillery explosion upon a woman with a child. What are those swine doing?Such sentiments were aroused especially by the events in Odessa, where a lot of guys were burned alive. Some people also go for the adrenaline. Especially those already have fought previously and who feel pulled back to it.Q. You are helping people to go to war. Do you not feel sorry for them?A. Do you think it doesn’t make me sad? I’m sorry, of course. Don’t imagine that my goal is to send as many as possible there. No, my goal is to send as few as possible. And for those I send, that they’re the ones best prepared for combat, and those who can’t be stopped in any case. Those will go, if not through me, then through others, or even on their own.I see a special forces guy with experience. Yes, he drinks, but he has no family, no children. He wants to fight.For the inexperienced, I try to dissuade them. I say, you’re not a professional; you’ll be the first in combat to fall. Not long ago, a very young boy came to me. He hadn’t served [in the military]. He declared he wanted to go make war in a United Ukraine. With a trident on his arm. I really let him have it. …Q. Now in Ukraine the situation is relatively calmer. Are new groups of volunteers preparing to go?A. Most recently, Russian volunteers have been squeezed out of Novorossiya under various pretexts. Commanders are calling guys who are already there and saying, „Go home, you’re not needed here.” So for now, I’m not preparing new groups. They’re just not needed. But there are reserves.Q. Are you afraid of what will happen, as in Kazakhstan, where volunteers who fought in Donbas are on trial? That suddenly you might be charged? For example, for mercenarism?A. For myself and for those volunteers who went to fight on my voucher, I am calm. If someone finds that we are working to fulfill some order [from anyone], let them put us on trial. But you cannot prove something that’s not there. People are going there voluntarily.James Rupert is an editor with the Atlantic Council. This article first appearedon the Atlantic Council website.

Finland: Just Say No to NATOWill Moreland January 6, 2015 Moscow’s increasingly aggressive behavior created a frigid atmosphere around the Baltic Sea throughout 2014. Russia has taken every opportunity to provocatively illustrate its strength, prompting concerns from the Nordic and Baltic states that live in Russia’s shadow. For Finland and Sweden, European Union members lying outside NATO’s protective shield, growing concerns have prompted thoughts of seeking shelter in the alliance. Yet, despite Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb’s endorsement of the NATO option, Finland’s entrance into the alliance would constitute a strategic mistake. While Russia’s actions may rattle neighbors, Moscow possesses little reason to intervene in Finland as it did in Ukraine. Finnish membership in NATO, however, would create a military threat that Russia could not ignore, inadvertently placing Helsinki in Moscow’s crosshairs.(Recommended5 Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear)The Putin regime has antagonized the West most visibly via an exponential growth of air sorties. NATO has scrambled fighters to respond to Russian aircraft on over 400 occasions in 2014, which signified a 50 percent increase in flights from 2013, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. For Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, the recent maneuvers impinging on Finnish airspace are clear instances of Russia “testing how we’d react.” Consequently, Finnish elites are reconsidering NATO membership in order to obtain firm commitments against potential aggression. Public opinion traditionally has disfavored joining the alliance; nevertheless, as Prime Minister Stubb notes, “each threatening gesture [from Moscow] strengthens those who support NATO membership.”Yet, one must question whether these incidents represent the tip of the iceberg of a greater danger, or mere pinpricks, designed to irritate and keep the West on edge. It is difficult to discern an imminent threat to Finland, which does not fit the pattern of aggression that has culminated in the Ukraine conflict. Unlike Kyiv or Tbilisi, Helsinki decidedly departed Moscow’s orbit, both politically and economically, twenty years ago, when it joined the European Union. Presently, there exists no struggle between Russia and West for the Finnish soul. Nor do ethnic and linguistic ties provide the cover of President Putin’s doctrine of extraterritorial protection of Russian speakers. Finland’s ethnic and linguistic composition does not mirror that of Ukraine, or even those of Estonia and Latvia. Finland lacks a sizable ethnic Russian minority; only 0.2 percent of the Finnish population speaks Russian as a first language.(Recommended5 NATO Weapons of War Russia Should Fear) Ethnic politics represent an essential smokescreen in galvanizing popular support for Putin’s adventurism. The Russian public remains extremely uneasy with the notion of a war over Ukraine. An August poll by the Levada Center revealed that only 43 percent of respondents would “support the Russian leadership in the event of open military conflict.” The myth of “fellow Russians” struggling against the perceived death march of fascism has transformed this hesitancy into support for Ukraine’s rebels. Without the pretext of similarly imperiled ethnic brethren in Finland, it would be difficult for the Putin government to contrive a narrative that garners public backing for a campaign against the Finns—absent some other provocation.(RecommendedRussia’s Super Fighter- The Su-35) However, Helsinki’s accession to NATO would create a categorically different problem by militarizing the Finnish-Russian border. Geography has dictated the strategic necessity of Russia maintaining a friendly Finland since the reign of Peter the Great. Moscow’s fears of a militarily aligned Finland are not completely unfounded; the long Russian memory recalls that had Finland acted in lockstep with its German co-belligerent in 1941, Axis forces would have likely completed the siege of Leningrad.(RecommendedThe Russian Air Force’s Secret Weapon) Finland’s entrance into NATO would more than double Russia’s border with the alliance.[1] In the eyes of the Putin government, NATO would gain an immense staging area to potentially replay the Kosovo campaign against Russia. Moscow’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine provided an unequivocal declaration: an enlarged border with NATO represents an intolerable threat that the Kremlin will employ force to prevent. Consequently, while NATO membership would offer an Article V guarantee, the Finns would discover a bull’s-eye attached to it.

Rare glimpse of Obama daughter causes online stirAFP 4 hours agoUS President Barack Obama (R) and daughter Malia make their way across the South Lawn upon returning to the White House on January 4, 2015 in Washington, DCUS President Barack Obama (R) and daughter Malia make their way across the South Lawn upon returning to the White House on January 4, 2015 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)Related Stories

Washington (AFP) – After years of careful White House control over her few public appearances, a mysterious online image of first daughter Malia Obama, 16, has gone viral.The rare glimpse of a personal side of President Barack Obama’s oldest daughter — sister Sasha is now 14 — shows her wearing a tee-shirt printed with the name of the Brooklyn rap group Pro Era.The photo shows the lanky high school student — or someone who looks very much like her — mouth agape, looking directly into the camera as she arranges her long ponytail.But no one seems to know who took the picture, or how it came to be circulated on the Internet.The viral dissemination of the image underscored the perils of life in the White House fishbowl — particularly when its occupants are trying to raise children there — in the age of the Internet and social media.The White House — which has jealously guarded the Obama girls’ privacy — so far has not commented on the photo.

California breaks ground on bullet train as climate solutionAssociated Press By SCOTT SMITH3 hours agoDignitaries and VIP's line up to sign a portion of the rail at the California High Speed Rail Authority ground breaking event, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015 in Fresno, Calif.  The $68 billion project faces challenges from Republicans in Congress eager to reduce government spending and Central Valley farmers suing to block the train from crossing their fields. The train would whisk travelers at 200 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)   FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — California broke ground Tuesday on its $68 billion high-speed rail system, promising to combat global warming while whisking travelers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours.The bullet train project, the first in the nation to get underway, faces challenges from Republican cost-cutters in Congress and Central Valley farmers suing to keep the rails off their fields. Others doubt the state can deliver the sleek system as designed, and worry it will become an expensive failure.But Gov. Jerry Brown said high-speed rail is essential to meeting his latest goal: Encouraging the nation’s most populous state to get half its power from renewable energy by 2030.”It’s not that expensive. We can afford it. In fact, we cannot NOT afford it,” Brown said before signing a symbolic section of rail. „All these projects are a little touch and go. You’ll have these critics say ‘why spend all this money?'””On the other hand I like trains, I like clean air,” Brown said. „And I like to enjoy the comfort of trains. I like to get up and walk around and shake hands. You can’t do that in your little car as you look in your rear view mirror.”One of the biggest public works endeavors in the country, California’s high-speed rail is a signature project for Brown’s political legacy, and supporters say it promises to boost the state’s economy with thousands of jobs, including many in the Central Valley, which has been hard-hit by recession and drought.California High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richards …California High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richards speaks to the crowd at the ground breakin …Zooming through the Central Valley at 200 mph, the trains could unite northern and southern California like never before.The high speed train tickets will be similar to the cost of air travel, promoters say, and deliver people to downtown stations, saving more time and money. Fares are projected to run from $81 to $89 one way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.By comparison, riding Amtrak between east San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles now takes 11 to 19 hours, and costs $59 to $138 each way. That rivals the expense of an airline flight, which takes about an hour and 15 minutes.By car, the journey takes at least 6 1/2 hours in the best traffic, and the price varies widely depending on the type of car, gasoline prices and highway tolls.Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the all-electric trains, running on renewable energy, will take cars off highways and provide an effective alternative to flying on jet fuel, which pumps far more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.Kevin Dayton and about a dozen others protest the high-speed …Kevin Dayton and about a dozen others protest the high-speed rail project during the California High …”High speed rail is good for our health, it is good for our climate and it is good for our economy,” she said.About a dozen protesters shouted „show me the money” during the groundbreaking, which was held in an industrial section of downtown Fresno, where the city’s bullet train station will be located near old rail lines that still ship produce and other cargo. The system will initially share existing rails with freight trains, but eventually travel at higher speeds on dedicated rails, California High-Speed Rail Authority chairman Dan Richard said.The authority needs to speed up the eminent domain process, since only 100 of the 500 land parcels needed for the rails and stations have been purchased. But Richard said „voters are going to get exactly what they asked for.”Californians approved a nearly $10 billion bond for the train in 2008, and in 2012 the Obama administration dedicated $3.3 billion in stimulus funds. Part of the greenhouse gas fees to be collected under the state’s cap-and-trade program also will go to the train.Bullet train systems make money in other countries, and California officials are banking on this one to entice private investments and development around the stations to offset the costs.The demolished Del Monte building is shown where the …The demolished Del Monte building is shown where the California High Speed Rail Authority will build …The initial work is on a 142-mile stretch north and south of Fresno. By 2029, planners hope to complete 520 miles of rails linking the San Francisco’s downtown Transbay Terminal to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.”Are we capable of making similar serious investments for future generations? The answer is not only yes we can, but yes we will,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, a Central Valley Democrat.Rep. Jeff Denham, a Central Valley Republican, has vowed to block funding, since he doubts the trains will be as fast or carry as many riders as promised. „It’s hard to celebrate breaking ground on what is likely to become abandoned pieces of track,” he said Monday.But project managers say 632 people are already designing and planning a system that will produce 20,000 jobs a year now that construction has begun.Fresno’s Republican Mayor Ashley Swearengin backs it, saying it will create jobs in the short term and eventually connect the Central Valley to the rest of the state’s economy.”We’re stuck right in the middle, and it’s difficult to get in and out,” she said. „It fills a deficit for Central California.”_Associated Press Writer Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco contributed to this story.

After police turn back on mayor again, where does New York go from here? Some New York police turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral for Officer Wenjian Liu. But to repair the rift and institute positive police reforms, what happens now will matter most.Christian Science Monitor By Mark SappenfieldJanuary 5, 2015 4:24 PM FOX News Videos Was it disrespectful for NYPD to turn backs on mayor?Was it disrespectful for NYPD to turn backs on mayor?NewsWas it disrespectful for NYPD to turn backs on mayor?Two weeks after protesters ignored New York Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s pleas to postpone their demonstrations for police reform, some New York police ignored the pleas of their commissioner and turned their back on Mayor de Blasio.It was the third time in three weeks that they have done so – first at the hospital immediately after Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were killed by a sympathizer with the protest movement, second last weekend at Mr. Ramos’s funeral, and finally at Mr. Liu’s funeral Sunday.In that way, it was a suitable culminating act for a turbulent episode in New York City‘s history.Recommended: Are you a true Noo Yawker? Take our Big Apple quiz.New York Police Commissioner William Bratton had hoped that, for the members of his department, the Liu funeral would be a time for grieving and not the airing grievances. New York Mayor de Blasio had hoped that, for the protesters with whom he shares many goals, the days before the funerals for the slain officers would be „a time to step back” and „put aside protests.”Neither got what he wanted. The past two weeks have provided some time to heal but have also seen an entrenchment on both sides. Police officers’ turned backs suggest they see a mayor and a protest movement out to demonize them. Protesters demonstrations suggest they see an unbroken blue wall of unaccountability.In short, it seems, not much has changed.New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, accompanied by …New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, accompanied by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratto …But when de Blasio issued his plea to protesters to step down on Dec. 22, he had his eye on this moment.”It’s time everyone put aside political debates, put aside protests,” he said, but added that these were things that „we will talk about in due time.”With Liu’s funeral now behind the city, that „due time” would appear to have arrived. Respect for Ramos and Liu demanded postponing politics. The continuing rift between the city’s police and its leaders now seems to be demanding its resumption.The result could be of profound importance for the country.Even before the deaths of Ramos and Liu, New York was poised to take a deep look at the issues raised by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island. The deaths spoke to concerns, particularly among many African-Americans, that police can act with far too much impunity.De Blasio had been elected in 2013 on a platform of reining in controversial NYPD practices and had already begun to do so. The Garner decision, in which a local cop was not indicted for killing an unarmed black man with a chokehold, arguably provided him with additional momentum.But beneath the surface, a police backlash was brewing. New York cops felt de Blasio was turning them into the bad guys, and with the gunning down of Ramos and Liu in broad daylight purely because they were police, that anger burst into the open.Some police officers turn their backs as Mayor Bill …Some police officers turn their backs as Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during the funeral of New York  …On one hand, the acrimony of the past two weeks has raised the stakes for the conversation that lies ahead, hardening positions on both sides. On the other, it has laid bare the visceral nature of the debate. Reform was never going to be easy. Now, no one is under any illusions about how hard it will be – or of the need for compassion for both sides.De Blasio has taken rhetorical steps to reach out to police in recent weeks, praising New York cops at every opportunity. But some say he must go further, admitting that he played a role in creating what many cops say was an anti-police atmosphere before Ramos and Liu were killed.”Bill de Blasio has to admit he made mistakes, or this does not end anytime soon, even if the funerals end, for now,” writes columnist Mike Lupica in The New York Daily News. „The mayor does not do this with extra overtime that starts to look like bribes, or eulogies, or using Bratton for cover, or even a new contract.”Beyond tamping down the raw emotions, the issues are complex, as well.For example, many police watchdog groups support initiatives to have police wear body cameras so that their actions are recorded. But that wouldn’t have made a difference in the Garner incident – it was already recorded on cellphone cameras.Increasing scrutiny of shootings by police could also could cause friction across local, state, and federal jurisdictions. The attorney general of the state of New York, for one, has already askedGovernor Cuomo to give him the authority to oversee all local investigations of police.But it appears that the pieces are at least in place in New York for an honest attempt at reform.De Blasio’s strength is in the city’s black community, which is unlikely to be deterred from its desire for reform. Police Commissioner Bratton is a reformer who has already reshaped the NYPD once, when he was commissioner from 1994-96. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made reform a top priority in his inauguration address on Jan. 1:The truth is police officers do need more safety and more protection. The truth is law enforcement needs to respect the community as much as the community needs to respect law enforcement. The truth is it’s our obligation as leaders to provide the reforms necessary to ensure safety. This is a New York City issue. It is a Buffalo issue. It is a Ferguson issue. It is a Los Angeles issue. But it is also our responsibility to solve it here in the state of New York.Related stories

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Female suicide bomber attacks Istanbul’s tourist heartAFP By Stuart Williams6 hours agoRiot police officers stand guard along a street leading to a police station after a female suicide bomber was killed on January 6, 2015  Istanbul (AFP) – A female suicide bomber on Tuesday killed herself and a Turkish policeman in a strike on the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district, the second attack on police to shake city within a week.The government denounced the bombing as a „heinous terror attack” against the „new Turkey” under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and said only the bravery of police had prevented a higher toll.The attack came five days after a member of an outlawed Marxist radical group DHKP-C attacked police on guard outside the Ottoman-era Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul on the Bosphorus.There was no immediate official indication of a link between the two attacks. But some Turkish media reports said the suicide bomber was a young woman in her mid-twenties who was a member of the DHKP-C.The woman went into the police station in the Sultanahmet district and told the police in English she had lost her wallet before setting off her explosives, governor Vasip Sahin said on Turkish television.The Sultanahmet district, which is the home of world famous attractions including the Blue Mosque and Aga Sophia museum, is visited by thousands of Turkish and foreign tourists every day.A Turkish police officer stands guard along a street …A Turkish police officer stands guard along a street leading to where a female suicide bomber was ki …One policeman was badly wounded and died of his wounds in hospital, the official Anatolia news agency reported.A second policeman was lightly wounded. Both were staffing a tourist police post intended to assist tourists with questions and problems.- ‘I lost my wallet’ -Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hailed the bravery of the police for potentially preventing further casualties.”The bravery of our security forces who sacrificed themselves prevented there being an even larger toll,” he said.A police officer stands guard along a street after …A police officer stands guard along a street after a female suicide bomber was killed on January 6,  …Davutoglu said a major investigation was underway to determine which organisation could be behind the attack but refused to speculate further.”The widest investigation is to be undertaken to determine which organisation could be connected to the attack,” he said in televised comments.Sahin said the woman had posed as a tourist when she approached police in the early evening rush.”She approached the police at around 5:00 pm (1500 GMT), saying in English: ‘I have lost my wallet’. That’s all I can say. We are trying to identify the attacker,” said Sahin.”The female bomber lost her life. She has staged the attack by detonating the bomb on her.”A police officer stands guard while crime scene investigation …A police officer stands guard while crime scene investigation officers work after a female suicide b …Emergency services rushed to the scene and the city tram line that runs through the district was halted.Davutoglu said two more explosive charges had been found on the corpse of the suicide bomber.They were blown up in a controlled explosion by bomb experts, shattering nearby windows, according to Turkish news reports.- ‘Heinous attack’ -Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus condemned the strike as a „heinous terror attack”.”The target of this attacks is the new Turkey, our beloved nation. But they won’t succeed. They won’t be able to destroy our brotherhood and unity,” he write on Twitter.The Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C) said it was behind the January 1 attack outside the Dolmabahce palace, which houses the Istanbul offices of the Turkish prime minister.The attacker, named as Firat Ozcelik, hurled two grenades at the police honour guard on duty outside the palace but they failed to explode.The DHKP-C — a radical Marxist organisation considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States — has over recent years carried out a string of sporadic and sometimes deadly attacks in Turkey and abroad.It claimed a suicide bombing in February 2013 at the US embassy in Ankara where a security guard was killed.Turkey is also on a high security alert amid the crises in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, where Islamic State (IS) jihadists have seized swathes of territory on the Turkish border.Western countries have accused Turkey of not doing enough to stem the flow of jihadists through its borders but Ankara insists it has now stepped up frontier security.Istanbul has been the scene of several bomb attacks in recent years, most notably the November 2003 attacks on two synagogues, the British consulate and a bank that left dozens dead.

Orthodox Christians mark Epiphany with icy plungeAFP 8 hours agoBulgarians dive into the icy waters of a lake to catch a cross in Sofia as part of Epiphany Day celebrations on January 6, 2015Kalofer (Bulgaria) (AFP) – Thousands of men and women across Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece plunged into icy waters Tuesday as part of an extreme Christian Orthodox celebration for the feast of Epiphany.From Thessaloniki in northern Greece to Istanbul and the small Bulgarian town of Kalofer, thick-skinned swimmers braved winter temperatures to retrieve wooden crucifixes thrown into the water by Orthodox priests as part of an annual ritual held on January 6.”Since the first time I made the dive at 18 years old I have always had good luck and good work,” said one swimmer in Istanbul who gave his name as Baba.The Bulgarian withstood the 10-degree celsius (50 degrees fahrenheit) waters of the Bosphorus to retrieve the cross.”I hope that my dive will bring luck and health to my family,” he added.In Prague, participants — several wearing paper crowns — did not chase after a cross but still took an icy dip in the Vltava river for the traditional swim on Epiphany, also known as Three Kings day.Men dance in the icy winter waters of the Tundzha river …Men dance in the icy winter waters of the Tundzha river in the town of Kalofer, Bulgaria, as part of …In Kalofer, in central Bulgaria, about 250 men broke the ice and waded into the slushy waters of the Tundzha river, while singing and performing a traditional chain dance dressed in white embroidered shirts and old-fashioned wool trousers and accompanied by a small folk orchestra.The ritual is over 100 years old and unique in Bulgaria, mayor Rumen Stoyanov, who led the dance himself, told AFP.Local tradition has it that only men can take part in the icy plunge, known as „saving the cross”, but there is no age restriction, he said.The youngest participant to brave the sub-zero temperatures was five-year-old Stilian accompanied by his father.According to local belief, none of the dancers will get ill after taking the icy dip and he and his relatives will have a healthy year.Participants prepare beforehand with a night of songs, food as well as homemade wine and brandy.Among Orthodox Christians, the feast of Epiphany celebrates the day the spirit of God descended upon believers in the shape of a dove during Jesus Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan. In western churches, focus is on the visit to Christ of the three kings, or Magi.The Kalofer dancers released several white pigeons under the cheers of onlookers, many of whom then jumped into the river, as the water on this day is believed to bring health and purification.

Putin foe Navalny defies house arrest by going to buy milkAssociated Press 11 hours agoFILE - In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, Russian opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, 38, surrounded by his supporters walks to attend a rally in Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, Russia. The opposition, usually all but invisible to the ordinary Russian, made a brief and small show two days before New Year’s when a couple thousand demonstrators defied police to gather near the Kremlin in protest of the conviction of opposition stalwart Alexei Navalny and his brother on fraud charges.  (AP Photo/Anton Belitski, file)MOSCOW (AP) — Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny defied his house arrest on Tuesday by walking to his local store to buy milk, and said he was quickly intercepted by three men — presumably police — who escorted him home.Navalny, the leading foe of President Vladimir Putin, was convicted a week ago of fraud and given a suspended sentence of 3½ years. He was kept under house arrest pending appeal.Claiming that it was illegal to keep him under house arrest after conviction, Navalny announced on Monday that he had cut off his monitoring bracelet with a kitchen knife.On Tuesday, he wrote on his website that he had been stopped after buying milk, and posted photos taken by his wife showing him walking back to the apartment, milk carton in hand, accompanied by the three men.The Kremlin appears reluctant to jail Navalny, so as not to make him a martyr, but also seems determined to keep him on a tight leash.A lawyer and popular blogger, Navalny rose to prominence with his investigations of official corruption and played a leading role in organizing anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 that drew hundreds of thousands.Navalny first violated the terms of his house arrest last week to attend a protest triggered by his conviction. As he approached the rally, he was picked up by police, who drove him home and blocked him from leaving his apartment.On Tuesday, he used his shopping trip to taunt the Kremlin over soaring inflation caused by the collapse of the ruble as the Russian economy heads into recession.”What a price for milk!” he wrote. The same liter of milk that he bought for 45 rubles before his house arrest began in February now costs 75 rubles, Navalny said.

Oceania Confederation endorses Blatter as FIFA headAssociated Press 7 minutes agoFILE - In this Monday, May 26, 2014.file photo Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, left, is greeted by FIFA Vice President, Jordan's Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, right, prior to their meeting on the first day of Blatter's regional tour to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel, in Amman, Jordan. Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan will stand for election in a bid to oust Sepp Blatter as leader of football's scandal-hit world governing body. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)FILE – In this Monday, May 26, 2014.file photo Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, left, is greeted by FIFA Vice President, Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, right, prior to their meeting on the first day of Blatter’s regional tour to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel, in Amman, Jordan. Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan will stand for election in a bid to oust Sepp Blatter as leader of football’s scandal-hit world governing body. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The 11 nations of the Oceania Football Confederation have expresssed unanimous support for the re-election of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president.In a statement following the Confederation’s annual congress on Wednesday, the OFC said „a resolution unanimously supporting FIFA president Joseph S.Blatter in his bid for re-election was suppported by a letter signed by all 11 OFC member associations.”Blatter, 78, is seeking a fifth term at the head of football’s world body while current FIFA vice-president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan has announced he will challenge.OFC president David Chung of Papua New Guinea was re-elected unopposed at Wednesday’s congress and becomes FIFA vice-president with immediate effect.Chung told the congress „we need to be united, transparent and make collective decisions for the good of OFC.”

A devoted Sean Penn helps US man recover from Bolivia ordealAssociated Press By FRANK BAJAK9 minutes agoIn this Dec. 15, 2014 photo Jacob Ostreicher, a New York businessman, poses for a photo in Los Angeles. In the year since he was spirited out of Bolivia, the 55-year-old has struggled to rebuild a life upended by corrupt officials who tried to extort him and had him imprisoned without charge while bleeding his Bolivian rice venture dry. The ordeal shredded the Brooklyn man's marriage, drained his bank account and nearly stole his sanity. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)   LIMA, Peru (AP) — It began with an attempt to salvage an ill-fated investment in Bolivian rice farms, devolved into a Third World prison nightmare and climaxed with an escape engineered with the help of actor Sean Penn.But, so far, there has been no Hollywood ending for Jacob Ostreicher.In the year since he was spirited out of Bolivia, the 55-year-old has struggled to rebuild a life upended by corrupt officials who tried to extort Ostreicher and had him imprisoned without charge while bleeding the rice venture dry.The ordeal shredded the Brooklyn man’s marriage, drained his bank account and nearly stole his sanity.”Certain days I don’t function,” Ostreicher told The Associated Press in a series of phone conversations, his first media interview since his rescue. „It’s hard to start a new life.”The former flooring business owner lives alone in Los Angeles and says he’s still trying to find a new line of work. He says he is not living off charity, never has, but has gotten huge emotional support from family, the Jewish community and a few of Hollywood’s biggest stars.None have done more than Penn.In late 2012, the Oscar-winning actor flew to Bolivia to investigate Ostreicher’s case at the urging of actor Mark Wahlberg.FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, actor Sean …FILE – In this Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, actor Sean Penn pushes U.S. businessman Jacob Ostreicher in …Ostreicher, who is an Orthodox Jew, had the attention of the Aleph Institute, a foundation that helps incarcerated Jews. The Florida-based group asked Wahlberg to reach out to Penn, who is widely known for his Haiti relief efforts and closeness to leftist Latin American leaders.Penn became convinced Ostreicher had been unjustly imprisoned since mid-2011 so corrupt authorities could drain the assets of the $25 million rice-farming operation in which he was a minor investor. Though he was accused of money-laundering, no evidence was ever presented.Penn was self-effacing when asked about his odd-couple friendship with Ostreicher and why he decided to help. „What can I say? He was likable,”When Penn asked Bolivian President Evo Morales to intercede, Penn got a tepid response.So he exposed the extortion ring, sparking a scandal that eventually would see 14 Bolivian officials jailed — the ring’s No. 2 figure entered a guilty plea last week — while others fled the country.Penn then got Ostreicher moved to a medical clinic. The New Yorker had withered to 107 pounds from a liquids-only hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. Penn leveraged his Venezuelan connections — he was close to the late President Hugo Chavez — to get armed Venezuelan security guards assigned to protect him, fearing he’d be targeted for exposing the extortion ring.Even though he had endured more than 30 court hearings, Ostreicher continued to insist he wanted to clear his name in Bolivia.FILE - In this May 20, 2013 file photo, Academy Award-winning …FILE – In this May 20, 2013 file photo, Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn testifies on Capitol H …Penn told him to let it go.”He held me down with both hands and looked at me and said, ‘I am going to get you home,'” Ostreicher recalled.But all Penn could accomplish was to get Ostreicher’s confinement in the maximum-security prison exchanged for house arrest.Then, in late 2013, Ostreicher arrived from South America on a commercial flight from Peru to Los Angeles International Airport, where Penn was waiting in the jetway to receive him.”He is fully responsible, Sean, for saving my life,” Ostreicher said. „He is much more than a friend.”Neither Penn nor Ostreicher would discuss the secretive escape in any detail, although Ostreicher said his older brother, Aron, paid for it and that he endured a nerve-wracking flight to La Paz from the eastern city of Santa Cruz sitting near Bolivia’s chief of police praying he wouldn’t be recognized. He said he wore a disguise.Bolivia claimed the escape was orchestrated by the CIA, which Ostreicher denies. He would say only that it involved „professionals” whom he declined to identify.FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2012 file photo, actor Sean …FILE – In this Oct. 30, 2012 file photo, actor Sean Penn talks to Bolivia’s President Evo Morale …During his years in Bolivia, Ostreicher’s marriage fell apart, with his wife staying in New York. Penn took him in and, for a few weeks, Ostreicher said, he did little more than stay rolled up in a fetal position on the couch.”I literally was crying to Sean that I want to go back to Bolivia,” he told the AP.”Sean sat with me for hours, sometimes sitting with me all night, rubbing my back,” he would later recount at a dinner honoring Penn.The actor enlisted his own family and friends in the healing.”I told Sean I’d like to find a person who had it all and lost it all to give me a reason that I should wake up every morning,” said Ostreicher.Penn introduced him to Robert Downey Jr.Downey, who hit bottom in the 1990s when drug addiction troubles landed him in jail for a year, counseled Ostreicher, then sent him clothing „literally in the tens of thousands of dollars” — Gucci suits, sweaters, sneakers, underwear, a Harry Winston watch.In this Dec. 15, 2014 photo, Jacob Ostreicher poses …In this Dec. 15, 2014 photo, Jacob Ostreicher poses for a photo in Los Angeles. In the year since he …Penn, meanwhile, was at Ostreicher’s side for some of his most trying moments.When his daughter, Gitty, flew with her husband and their five children from New Jersey for a February reunion, Ostreicher was terrified, he said.He tried to find excuses to avoid the meeting, telling Penn he didn’t have the proper clothing.”I need a white shirt. I need a black suit. I need a certain hat. And Sean jumped into his car and brought me back six hats.””He said, ‘One of them has got to be the right one.'”When they arrived for the reunion, the kids didn’t want to come to him.”They didn’t recognize me, the old, sick man I became,” he said.He began telling the kids about the „very strong man” who sneaked him out of Bolivia. „You want to meet this man?” Ostreicher asked. Then, he pointed to Penn.”I told Sean, ‘Show the kids your biceps.'””Sean literally went down on his knees, unbuttoned his shirt and flexed his muscles for my grandchildren so they should come closer to me. And this is how they started coming to me.”Asked about the incident, Penn paused briefly.”Jacob has a way,” he said, „of putting someone on the spot.”_Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report._Frank Bajak on Twitter: http:/twitter.com/fbajak

Lackluster Leafs sack coach CarlyleAFP 6 hours agoHead coach Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs works out his team on December 31, 2013 in Ann Arbor, MichiganHead coach Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs works out his team on December 31, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan (AFP Photo/Gregory Shamus)Toronto (Canada) (AFP) – The Toronto Maple Leafs, fresh off a disappointing seven-game NHL road trip, sacked head coach Randy Carlyle on Tuesday.Assistants Peter Horachek and Steve Spott will handle the coaching duties in Wednesday’s home game against the Washington Capitals, the club said.Carlyle’s dismissal comes after they managed just two wins on the road trip. They have dropped seven of their last nine contests, and are lying eighth in the Eastern Conference.”I want to thank Randy for all of his hard work and dedication,” Maple Leafs senior vice president and general manager David Nonis said in a statement. „It’s never an easy decision to make when changing your leadership but our team was not trending in the right direction and we felt an immediate change was necessary.”Carlyle, 58, was hired by Toronto late in the 2011-12 season and led the club to the playoffs the next year.The Maple Leafs lost in the opening round to the Boston Bruins, blowing a 4-1 third-period lead in the deciding game seven of the series.Carlyle, who guided Anaheim to the 2007 Stanley Cup title, finished with a 91-78-19 record during his tenure in Toronto.Carlyle is the fourth NHL coach to be sacked this season, after Ottawa’s Paul MacLean, Edmonton’s Dallas Eakins and New Jersey’s Pete DeBoer.

46,200 immigrants apply for California driver’s licenseAssociated Press 49 minutes ago SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — California officials say 46,200 immigrants started applying for a driver’s license in the first three days that the state began issuing licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally.Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said Tuesday that 970 licenses were issued Friday to immigrants who weren’t required to take a road test because they previously had a license in California or another state.Most applicants are given permits after passing a required written test and must return for a road test before getting a license.The DMV says 54 percent of all new driver’s license applicants who took the written test in English on Friday passed it, while 36 percent passed it in Spanish.California expects 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses in the next three years.

EU parliament head berates „irresponsible” MerkelEmployees of the chancellery and TV crews watch on a screen as German Chancellor Angela Merkel records her annual New Year's speech at the Chancellery in Berlin on December 30, 2014AFP/Pool/AFP/File – Employees of the chancellery and TV crews watch on a screen as German Chancellor Angela Merkel records her annual New Year’s speech at the Chancellery in Berlin on December 30, 2014European Parliament President Martin Schulz speaks to journalists at EU headquarters in Brussels on December 18, 2014European Parliament President Martin Schulz speaks to journalists at EU headquarters …EU parliament president Martin Schulz, on Wednesday accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of „irresponsible speculation” over suggestions that Greece may be allowed to exit the euro if the far-left wins elections this month.”The irresponsible speculation and debate over the ‘Grexit’ (Greek exit from the eurozone) really isn’t helping,” Schulz said in comments published by the Die Welt daily.”It should be clear to everyone: there is no question of a withdrawal from the euro. The unsolicited comments which give the people of Greece the idea that it’s not for them to decide their future via their votes, but up to Brussels or Berlin could even push electors into the arms of radical forces,” the German member of the European parliament warned.Merkel has come under fire since the Der Spiegel news weekly on Saturday cited sources close to the German government as saying she is prepared to let Greece leave the eurozone if Greeks elect a government that jettisons the country’s current austerity course.The report comes as polls show a radical leftist party, Syriza, leading the field ahead of a snap election in Greece on January 25.The party led by Alexis Tsipras has pledged to reverse reforms imposed by Greece’s international creditors and renegotiate its bailout deal.”The German government considers a eurozone exit (by Greece) to be almost inevitable if opposition leader Alexis Tsipras leads the government after the election and abandons budgetary discipline and does not repay the country’s debts,” Der Spiegel reported on its website.Both Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had come to view a potential Greek exit from the 19-member eurozone in a less dramatic light, the report explained.The German government has denied that any such discussion has taken place.Greece’s parliament was dissolved last week after the assembly failed to agree on a successor to outgoing President Karolos Papoulias in three successive votes.The German government has denied that any such discussion has taken place.Accused of exerting pressure on Greek voters, the EU Commission has stayed out of the argument, with Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici asserting that the European Union’s powerful executive branch was not taken a position on the Greek electoral campaign.Meanwhile, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron stressed that Greece’s place was in the eurozone regardless of the colour of the next national government and urged Berlin and the European Central Bank to work towards its economic recovery.He said French President Francois Hollande would seek to „convince our German partner that France and Germany should go further to relaunch Europe,” when he meets Merkel in Strasbourg on Sunday.Germany „should invest more. It has an overriding responsibility to do so just as France has an overriding responsibility to carry out reforms,” he added.