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US and Russia Want to Avoid Syrian Escalation, But Are They in Control?

The U.S. and its Western allies avoided triggering a wider war in Syria last Saturday when they retaliated with precision missile strikes against President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack. But there are plenty of hazards ahead that could draw the big powers, as well as neighboring countries, deeper into the Syria quagmire — and into direct conflict with each other, however determined they are to avoid it, analysts said.

Washington and its allies may have given up on seeking the removal of Assad from power, and the rebels may now control only a few pockets of the north near the Turkish border and in the south adjacent to Jordan, but the Syria conflict remains far from over.

Microconflicts abound — although they are less “micro” from the point of view of those involved — with a struggle intensifying over the consolidation of spheres of influence. Several outside powers are determined not only to shape post-war Syria, but to retain significant long-term roles for themselves, as well as to maintain territory they currently control.

In the north, Turkey is continuing to press an offensive against America’s Syrian Kurdish allies and is threatening to expand it. Sunni Arab rebels and Kurds are at each other’s throats, risking drawing in the U.S. Al-Qaida remains a menacing and influential force. And remnants of the Islamic State group have yet to be mopped up.

Aside from Turkey, substantial territory is occupied by Iranian-controlled militias, including Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which has developed a number of military bases in the country, and Iranian-led Shi’ites from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

And the biggest challenge all foreign powers face in Syria is how to control their proxies and ostensible partners in a complex multisided struggle involving an array of militias and fighters and countries, all with conflicting agendas.

There was a sense of relief among Western political and military leaders in the hours after the U.S., France and Britain launched a barrage of 105 cruise missiles to obliterate three Syrian government facilities. The worst-case scenario of the Russians responding to the punitive strikes hadn’t materialized. And the Syrian military’s efforts to shoot down incoming missiles failed — despite claims to the contrary by both Moscow and Damascus, said Pentagon officials.

​Israel and Iran

But the threat of escalation remains, despite its absence Saturday, and one of the biggest risks, said analysts, rests with a menacing threat dynamic unfolding between Israel and Iran in Syria.

“The scale of Tehran’s military expansion across Syrian territory and the resulting threat that this poses both to Israel and regional security has become unsustainable, and the risk of a major conflagration and a potentially uncontrollable cycle of escalation has never been higher,” said Charles Lister, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research organization, and author of the book The Syrian Jihad.

Israel has launched dozens of cross-border airstrikes targeting mainly Hezbollah in the past few years, with the latest earlier this month, when at least seven Iranian military personnel, including a top commander, were killed in an Israeli missile strike on an Iranian drone base in Homs province.

On Tuesday, Bahram Ghassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, threatened reprisal, warning, “Tel Aviv will be punished for its aggressive action. The occupying Zionist regime will, sooner or later, receive an appropriate response to its actions.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned after the missile strike on the drone base that Israel “will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria, no matter the price to pay. We have no other option. Allowing Iran to strengthen itself in Syria is like accepting that the Iranians strangle us.”

Lister said the U.S. needs to include the issue of the military presence of Iran and Hezbollah “within its broader strategic calculations on Syria policy, and in coordination with allies, it should seek to aggressively contain and deter Iran and prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming truly inevitable.”

U.S. options

It remains unclear, though, how Washington can do that — at least, without courting the danger of being drawn deeper into a conflict that’s threatening to spill over in all directions, more so now than at any other time in the seven-year conflict. Containing Iran would also seem impossible, if U.S. President Donald Trump follows through on his stated aim of withdrawing soon the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria, where they are tasked with mopping up IS fighters but are serving also as protectors of the Syrian Kurds.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that one idea being raised by the Trump administration is to assemble a coalition force drawn from Gulf Arab states and Egypt to replace the U.S. military in northeast Syria, with the aim of it combating extremist groups and containing Iranian influence.

But analysts caution any Arab troops deployed would find themselves directly confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen and Shi’ite militias, prompting the likelihood of war spreading across the Middle East.

Turkey would also be unlikely to welcome Egyptian, Saudi or Emirati forces arrayed along its southern border, said analysts, and it is unclear how the force would be able to operate, as Egypt is supportive of the Assad government, while Saudi Arabia and the Emirates aren’t.

Even without throwing an Arab force into the equation, the endgame of the Syrian conflict is fraught with increasing unknowns and dangers. Despite a display of unity between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran at a recent conference in Ankara hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there are signs that the current understanding between the three may not have long to run.

Both Russia and Iran are pressing Turkey to relinquish control of the Kurdish city of Afrin and to hand it over to the Syrian government. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the most explicit, expressing disapproval of Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria and complaining it is in violation of Syria’s “territorial integrity.”

“Tehran appears to be increasingly concerned about Turkey’s plans in the north of the country,” according to Hamidreza Azizi, a political scientist at Iran’s Shahid Beheshti University.

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Britain Launches 7 Probes into Impartiality of Russian Broadcaster RT

Britain’s broadcast regulator has opened seven investigations into Russian state-owned RT television channel, citing an increase in potential violations of impartiality rules since the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Ofcom, the media regulator, said the probes would determine whether RT owner TV Novosti is “fit and proper” to continue to hold a British broadcast license.

Ofcom said that until recently, TV Novosti’s “overall compliance record has not been materially out of line with other broadcasters.” But Ofcom added it has seen a “significant increase in the number of programs on the RT service that warrant investigation.”

Britain has accused Russia of poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a military-grade nerve agent in the British city of Salisbury on March 4, a charge Russia denies.

The Russian television channel maintains its editorial approach has been consistent since the poisoning.

“Our editorial approach has not changed since the events in Salisbury, and we will be directly addressing this matter with the regulator,” said RT spokeswoman Anna Belkina.

Separately, RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, acknowledged Britain’s investigation and joked the TV channel was not responsible for the death of Sergei Skripal’s cat.

The cat was put down after being found in Skripal’s home in southern England.

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Cambridge Analytica ex-CEO Refuses to Testify in UK

Cambridge Analytica’s ex-CEO, Alexander Nix, has refused to testify before the U.K. Parliament’s media committee, citing British authorities’ investigation into his former company’s alleged misuse of data from millions of Facebook accounts in political campaigns.

Committee Chairman Damian Collins announced Nix’s decision a day before his scheduled appearance but flatly rejected the notion that he should be let off the hook, saying Nix hasn’t been charged with a crime and there are no active legal proceedings against him.

“There is therefore no legal reason why Mr. Nix cannot appear,” Collins said in a statement. “The committee is minded to issue a formal summons for him to appear on a named day in the very near future.”

Nix gave evidence to the committee in February, but was recalled after former Cambridge Analytica staffer Christopher Wylie sparked a global debate over electronic privacy when he alleged the company used data from millions of Facebook accounts to help U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Wylie worked on Cambridge Analytica’s “information operations” in 2014 and 2015.

Wylie has also said the official campaign backing Britain’s exit from the European Union had access to the Facebook data.

Cambridge Analytica has previously said that none of the Facebook data it acquired from an academic researcher was used in the Trump campaign. The company also says it did no paid or unpaid work on the Brexit campaign. The company did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said Tuesday that it had written to Nix to “invite him” to be interviewed by investigators. The office is investigating Facebook and 30 other organizations over their use of data and analytics.

“Our investigation is looking at whether criminal and civil offences have been committed under the Data Protection Act,” the office said in a statement.

Nix’s refusal to appear comes as the seriousness of the British inquiry becomes more evident.

Facebook has said it directed Cambridge Analytica to delete all of the data harvested from user accounts as soon as it learned of the problem.

But former Cambridge Analytica business development director Brittany Kaiser testified Tuesday that the U.S. tech giant didn’t really try to verify Cambridge Analytica’s assurances that it had done so.

“I find it incredibly irresponsible that a company with as much money as Facebook … had no due diligence mechanisms in place for protecting the data of U.K. citizens, U.S. citizens or their users in general,” she said.

Kaiser suggested that the number of individuals whose Facebook data was misused could be far higher than the 87 million acknowledged by the Silicon Valley giant.

In an atmosphere where data abuse was rife, Kaiser told lawmakers she believed the leadership of the Leave.EU campaign had combined data from members of the U.K. Independence Party and customers from two insurance companies, Eldon Insurance and GoSkippy Insurance. The data was then sent the University of Mississippi for analysis.

“If the personal data of U.K. citizens who just wanted to buy car insurance was used by GoSkippy and Eldon Insurance for political purposes, as may have been the case, people clearly did not opt in for their data to be used in this way by Leave.EU,” she said in written testimony to the committee.

Leave.EU’s communications director, Andy Wigmore, called Kaiser’s statements a “litany of lies.”

It is how the data was used that alarms some members of the committee and has captured the attention of the public.

An expert on propaganda told the committee Monday that Cambridge Analytica used techniques developed by the Nazis to help Trump’s presidential campaign, turning Muslims and immigrants into an “artificial enemy” to win support from fearful voters.

University of Essex lecturer Emma Briant, who has for a decade studied the SCL Group – a conglomerate of companies, including Cambridge Analytica – interviewed company founder Nigel Oakes when she was doing research for a book. Oakes compared Trump’s tactics to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in singling out Jews for reprisals.

“Hitler attacked the Jews, because … the people didn’t like the Jews,” he said on tapes of the interview conducted with Briant. “He could just use them to . leverage an artificial enemy. Well that’s exactly what Trump did. He leveraged a Muslim.”

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Inside the Internet Research Agency: a Mole Among Trolls

Vitaly Bespalov, a 23-year-old journalism school graduate, had no idea what to expect when he arrived at a nondescript four-story business center in St. Petersburg to interview for a job.

Everything about the building at Savushkina 55 seemed odd. Security was heavy and the windows were tinted. Guards dressed in camouflage demanded his passport and his home address before letting him into the building. And, as he negotiated his entry, Bespalov noticed a woman enter the lobby in a rage.

“She was yelling something about how she refused to be part of this,” says Bespalov. “Everything about the place was strange.”

The year was 2014 and, as Bespalov was to learn, the building was the home of the Internet Research Agency – the company that would later be indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller on charges of conspiring to tamper in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

At that time, however, the agency was more concerned with the aftermath of another election – this time at home.

In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets and social media, alleging the Kremlin had carried out mass fraud in the country’s parliamentary elections. As Russians shared evidence of ballot stuffing and called others to join the protests, state media stayed silent. The difference in realities was glaring.

“The Kremlin decided they needed to make the online world and state television tell the same story,” says Bespalov, who described his experiences working at the notorious troll factory to VOA.

The aspiring journalist had moved from his native Siberia earlier to St. Petersburg on the promise of a job with a local news website. But the job fell through.  

As a newcomer to St. Petersburg, Bespalov sent out resume after resume, looking for anything that involved editing or reporting.

The rejections piled up until one day the phone rang. He was invited for an interview. Even better: The job paid double the going rate for writing gigs.

“I had no idea who it was,” Bespalov says. “They just called and told me to show up tomorrow at this address – Savushkina 55. And I didn’t understand what the job was or what the company was, but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

Having negotiated his way through the heavy security, he was shown into an interview with a woman named Anna. He took a writing test and showed his writing samples – sympathetic takes on Russia’s opposition movement, LGBT rights, and the feminist art collective Pussy Riot.

“From those articles alone, my political views were obvious. I still don’t understand why they took me,” he says. “But Anna came back with a smile and said, ‘Well, we don’t cover the kind of stories you do, but you know how to write.’”

He got the job.

Inside the troll factory

On his first day, Bespalov was assigned to cover the war in eastern Ukraine. Sort of. He was told to rewrite articles from other websites for a handful of fake Ukrainian news sites. His task: to change the text in order to give articles the appearance of originality and a distinctly pro-Russian slant.

“We’d switch the word ‘annexation’ of Crimea for ‘reunification,’ or call the government in Kyiv ‘a fascist junta’ while writing favorably about the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine,” he says.

If there had been mere doubts before, Bespalov now knew for sure: He was in the epicenter of a propaganda machine.

With the realization came a dilemma, he says. “I could either leave right away, so as not to ruin my reputation as a journalist,” he says. “Or, I thought, I can stay and find out more and publish a big story about it somewhere.”

Bespalov went undercover. A mole among trolls.


He paints a gloomy picture of troll life inside Savushkina 55. Teams worked eight- to 12-hour shifts around the clock, seven days a week. Department heads monitored their work. Surveillance cameras were everywhere. Conversation among employees was discouraged.


In quick chats during cigarette breaks, Bespalov came to the conclusion that most trolls cared or thought little about what they were doing.  

“I know people who’ve been there for three years and never thought once what it was all about. They were there for the money,” he says.


Bespalov sketches out a highly structured operation, noting a fake news division on one floor, and bloggers and social media commentators on another. Also within the structure – a graphics department – which seemingly built an endless number of picture memes called “demotivators” for everyone to use.

Bespalov concludes the point of all this was to complete what he calls a “circle of lies” – a feedback loop where troll postings reinforced Kremlin news on state media, pushing one central idea which he characterizes as “Make Russia Great Again.”

In contrast to 2011, the internet and state media had now merged into one.

“The work was directed at the Russian audience,” Bespalov says. “Even the fake Ukrainian sites weren’t there to change minds in Ukraine. The point was to remove Russians’ doubts about the war in Ukraine and about ourselves because we have a weak economy, because we have few political freedoms. And because Russia can’t launch a company like Apple or develop an innovative space program. But what we can do is create the appearance of a great country. Not make the country better, but create the impression we have.”

Exit strategy


In the end, Bespalov spent three-and-a-half months at the Internet Research Agency. He says that once he felt he’d learned all he could, he quit. And he did publish his investigation – anonymously, out of fear for his safety. In fact, Bespalov was threatened, he says, after others at the IRA began suspecting he was the source of the article.


But eventually, the threats faded – in part, he suspects, because it turns out he wasn’t the only journalist working undercover at the IRA. Other local media outlets had come out with investigations.

“By this point, everybody knew about it,” he says.

And the troll factory would have remained old news if not for its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.  

Bespalov says he has little light to shed on that operation, other than that the agency had started advertising for English-speaking positions around the time he left.

“We see that all the journalists who have written from inside the troll factory worked there back in 2014 or 2015,” he says. “That tells me that the system has gotten more cautious. Accidental types like me no longer can get work there.”  

Nonetheless, Bespalov’s willingness to talk about his experiences have made him a go-to source for Western media covering the election scandal – and a punching bag for Russian state media.

A recent NBC News report featuring Bespalov prompted Russia’s state media to run a piece disparaging his claims. The program also pilfered his social media accounts – mocking his alternative lifestyle, tattoos and liberal political views.  

Bespalov says his actions have been misrepresented on both sides of the Atlantic.

“In the U.S., they label me as ‘Vitaly Bespalov, former troll,’ not a journalist,” he says. “And from the Russian side, I’m a liar and traitor. A lot of my friends tell me, ‘Enough already. No more interviews. Have you lost your mind? Do you want to get killed? You’ve told your story and talking to more people about it won’t change anything.’”

Indeed, there were indications that the trolls recently geared up for another election – this time Russia’s 2018 presidential campaign.

An account on Telegram by a user named “Kremlebot,” who claims to work in the Internet Research Agency’s Russian division, wrote that employees were tasked with boosting voter turnout – a widely acknowledged goal of Kremlin spin doctors eager to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Vladimir Putin’s reelection bid. Requirements included sending selfies from polling stations to agency managers as well as playing up the competitiveness of the race.

Could “Kremlebot” be housed in Savushkina 55? Unlikely. Today, a giant “For Rent” sign hangs in the windows of Bespalov’s old office.

The Internet Research Agency had already moved on — and the trolls along with it.


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Europe’s Venture Capitalists Embrace Virtual Currency Craze

Some of Europe’s biggest venture capital firms are buying into sales of new virtual coins or asking their investors to give them the freedom to do so, in a sign of mainstream investor backing for the booming but controversial crowd-funding tool.

Germany’s HV Holtzbrinck Ventures, which has more than 1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) under management, is talking to its investors about changing the terms of its next fund so it can buy tokens directly, Jan Miczaika, a partner at the firm, told Reuters.

Lakestar, the Zurich-based firm run by Klaus Hommels, has made at least four investments in crypto and blockchain-related businesses since early 2017, among them ShapeShift, an exchange, and Blockchain, a wallet provider, and it is preparing to invest in a combination of coin and equity stakes in more.

Smaller and newer funds like BlueYard Capital and Fabric Ventures are focusing specifically on investments around blockchain — a distributed ledger technology that can remove the need for centralizing institutions — often by buying virtual coins.

Venture capitalists usually take equity stakes in start-ups, gaining a say in how the company is run and legal and governance certainties over their investments. Buying into initial coin offerings (ICOs), as the sale of digital tokens is known, can be far more risky. They offer little more than a promise the tokens will be worth more in future.

But with hundreds of start-ups — ICOs last year raised $6.3 billion — seeking to raise capital for new projects, investors say that to gain access to cutting-edge technology they need the flexibility to compete.

“It’s the internet in the early 1990s, you have to experiment,” said Nicolas Brand, a partner at Lakestar. “I have to find the best way of backing the best entrepreneurs and we need to be agile in how we invest.”

Regulators have raised serious questions about the transparency of ICOs and the risks of scams, although authorities in countries from Switzerland to France have disclosed plans to attract new launches.

Supporters say blockchain will disrupt industries from finance to logistics and that ICOs are a novel way of crowd-funding.

Tokens are the route to make money. They embody the idea that consumers will need to own and use them to buy services, from playing computer games to online shopping. When demand for those products spreads, the token prices will rise, creating value for earlier owners like venture capitalists.

“The [blockchain] technology is very exciting. Ninety-five percent of the tokens will go to zero. On the other hand, the other 5 percent are very interesting and could go on to revolutioniZe the market,” said Miczaika at HV Holtzbrinck.

Equity to ICO

Unlike some big U.S. funds, most big European venture capitalists are avoiding the world’s biggest ICO, by messaging app Telegram, people familiar with the funds say, citing concerns about the amount — a reported $1.7 billion — it has raised.

Broader worries about the quality of teams looking to cash in on ICOs are common, and some funds say that far from being a threat to the venture capital model, most ICOs are a fad.

Those that survive will find themselves wanting the support and hand-holding that conventional venture investment offers.

“We need to get our heads around ICOs, but I don’t see it as a threat. I don’t think I’ve missed a company which I wish I’d invested in but couldn’t because it did an ICO,” said Suranga Chandratillake, partner at London-based Balderton Capital.

To date, venture activity has focused on crypto companies like HV Holtzbrinck’s investment in ICO platform Upvest or Point Nine Capital’s stake in peer-to-peer bitcoin lender Bitbond, which tapped into the crypto-trading craze and followed on from a series of investments by well-known U.S. venture funds.

Investors said the next round of activity would target projects offering the building blocks for blockchain’s development, such as software development networks. They will benefit if the largely unproven technology matures.

Buying into the coins is necessary for aligning themselves to such projects, they argue.

“We came to the conclusion that if we really want to do decentralized tokens we have to be a part of it,” said Ciaran O’Leary, who co-founded Berlin-based BlueYard and invested in the 2017 ICO by data storage network Filecoin, which was worth an estimated $200 million.


ICOs also present major governance and legal concerns, including how to store coins safely after several large hacks.

To keep their investments safe, venture firms are looking at storing coins offline or in wallets where no transaction can take place without the agreement of multiple individuals.

Max Mersch, a partner at Fabric Ventures, said his firm had also introduced multi-year lock-ups prohibiting quick dumping of coins, to encourage longer-term investment horizons and so partners had time to shape governance.

Risks aside, venture capitalists say the potential impact of tokens is too hard to ignore.

“A token is a very powerful innovation and in the best token projects, the fund-raising is actually a byproduct,” said Lakestar’s Brand said. “The token is about activating network effects on steroids,” he said, predicting they would have the power to take on “rival monoliths like Facebook”.

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Russia: Global Watchdog to Access Site of Alleged Chemical Attack in Syria

A Russian official says a team of chemical weapons experts is set to make a visit Wednesday to the site east of Syria’s capital where a suspected chemical attack killed dozens of people earlier this month.

The investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Syria on Saturday, but so far have not been able to begin their work in Douma.

The U.S. envoy to the OPCW, Ken Ward, said Monday it was his understanding Russia had already visited the site and he raised concerns of tampering before the OPCW carries out its fact-finding mission.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the accusation, telling the BBC he guarantees Russia “has not tampered with the site.”

Lavrov said that evidence cited by the United States, Britain and France to justify last Saturday’s missile attack on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities was based “on media reports and social media.” He denied any chemical weapons attack had occurred, accusing Britain of staging the attack.

Russia further blamed the Saturday airstrikes for the delays in the OPCW team being able to access Douma.

Syrian media reported another missile attack early Thursday in Homs province, saying government air defenses shot down most of the missiles fired at an air base. The reports did not say who was responsible, and the U.S. military said neither it nor the coalition it leads was operating in that area at the time.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said Monday that Russian and Syrian officials had informed the team that there are “still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place” to Douma.

In Moscow, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the mission was not allowed in because it lacked approval from the United Nation’s Department for Safety and Security.

U.N. officials in New York disputed the claim.

“The United Nations has provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric. “We have not denied the team any request for it to go to Douma.”

He added that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is very supportive of the investigation.

“The secretary-general wants to see the fact-finding mission have access to all the sites it needs to have access to, so that we can have the most thorough and full picture of the facts,” Dujarric said. 

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said ahead of a ministerial meeting there is a clear need to push for re-launching a U.N.-led peace process for Syria. At the U.N. Security Council, France has proposed a new draft resolution that addresses three key aspects of the conflict — chemical weapons, humanitarian issues and the political process. 

“So, this is our road map, and we will work very hard, in good faith, in good spirit, to listen to everybody, in order to try to move ahead with our draft resolution and move forward toward an inclusive political settlement of the crisis,” France’s envoy François Delattre told reporters Monday.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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Russian Investigative Journalist Dies After Fall From Balcony

A Russian investigative journalist, who recently wrote about the deaths of Russian mercenaries in Syria, has died after falling from his 50th-floor balcony in the city of Yekaterinburg.

Maxim Borodin, 32, was found badly injured on the pavement under his balcony and taken to a hospital, where he died Sunday, according to his employer, the news website Novy Den (New Day).

Local police said they did not see any foul play, but his death prompted intense speculation among friends and colleagues.

Borodin’s friend, Vyacheslav Bashkov, wrote on Facebook that Borodin contacted him early in the morning on Wednesday, the day before the fall, and told him that there was a man with a gun on his balcony, and that several others in masks and camouflage clothing were lurking in the stairwell leading to his apartment building.

Bashkov said that Borodin had called back an hour later and said he had been mistaken and that he thought the armed men were probably taking part in a training exercise.

Borodin regularly covered high-profile corruption cases and crime in Russia. In February, he broke a story about Russian mercenaries who died in an armed confrontation with U.S. forces near Deir-Ezzor, Syria.

Last year, he gave an interview to a Russian independent channel TV Rain and talked about the controversial film Matilda, then was subsequently hit on the head by an unknown assailant with a metal pipe.

Russia ranks first on the European Federation of Journalists list of countries with the highest number of journalists murdered in Europe.

Since 1992, 38 journalists have been murdered in Russia, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most of those cases remain unsolved.

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Hungary: EU’s ‘Irresponsible’ Migrant Policy Poses Threat to Jews

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office said on Monday an “irresponsible” migration policy on the part of the European Union had stoked religious intolerance in western Europe that was threatening Jews there.

His office issued a statement a week after Orban was re-elected by a landslide to a third straight term with a fierce anti-immigrant campaign that vilified Hungarian-born, Jewish-American tycoon George Soros for promoting liberal open-door values in Hungary and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe.

The right-wing nationalist premier has presented himself as the savior of Hungary’s sovereignty and Christian values against what he calls an “invasion” of Muslim migrants. His office used the occasion of Hungary’s Holocaust Remembrance Day to reiterate its strong criticism of EU migration policies.

“There is only one way to counter worryingly strengthening anti-Semitic phenomema…Europe must return to its values stemming from Judaeo-Christian traditions,” Orban’s office said.

“The religious intolerance that threatens Europe – which is a direct consequence of the irresponsible migration policy of Brussels – has translated into unprecedented violence in the western half of the continent,” it said, alluding to a number of deadly Islamist militant attacks since 2015.

Orban has repeatedly pledged zero tolerance of anti-Semitism. But some comments he made last year rattled Hungarian Jews, including praise for Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s wartime Nazi-allied leader who only suspended deportations of Jews in 1944 after half a million had been sent to the gas chambers.

Orban has also played up the idea that “external forces and international powers” like the EU, which Hungary joined in 2004, and the United Nations want to meddle in internal Hungarian affairs and force the country to accept migrants.

He has said his government’s policy of rejecting migrants also serves the interests of European Jewish communities.

However, Orban has drawn strong western EU and U.S. criticism for drafting so-called “Stop Soros” legislation that would slap a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that the government says back migration in Hungary.

Orban told state radio last month activists were being paid by Soros to “transform Hungary into an immigrant country.” Soros has rejected the campaign against him as “distortions and lies” meant to create a false external enemy to distract Hungarians.

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Europe Mulls Post-Syria Strike Steps

European foreign ministers and France’s parliament meet Monday to discuss their response to the joint U.S., French and British strikes on Syria. The military action has sparked sharp divisions, even though French President Emmanuel Macron insisted Sunday night they carried international legitimacy.

EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg and France’s parliament in Paris are expected to question, but not seriously test, the decision by French and British leaders to join Washington in striking suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria. Some EU leaders, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, have called the military action necessary — and the bigger debate may be on figuring out Europe’s response to Syria’s ally, Russia.

In France, several leading opposition politicians have sharply criticized French involvement in the strikes. But Monday’s parliamentary session on Syria will be limited to a debate only — and French President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche party dominates the National Assembly.

During a televised interview Sunday night, Macron said the coalition had “full international legitimacy to intervene” in striking Syria for humanitarian reasons. He called the action a retaliation, not an act of war, and said France had proof chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian government during a recent attack on the rebel-held town of Douma. He also said France has “not declared war on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

Macron said he had convinced President Donald Trump to keep U.S. forces in Syria — a version later disputed by the White House — and to carry out only limited strikes.

While Washington and its European allies are united over the strikes, they may be divided over how to proceed.

Macron called Russia “complicit” in the alleged chemical attacks, by using diplomatic means to render the international community incapable of responding to them. But he also said it was important to work together with Russia, Turkey and Iran in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. Macron and President Trump are due to hold talks in Washington next week.

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RIA: Russia Says will Not Delay Response to US Sanctions

Russia will not delay adopting legislation in response to new U.S. sanctions, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday, RIA news agency reported.

Senior members of the lower house of parliament have said they are considering legislation to give the Kremlin powers to ban or restrict a list of U.S. imports.

Ryabkov said Moscow was discussing what he called Washington’s abuse of the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency.