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Writers: Russian attacks seek ‘erasure’ of Ukrainian culture

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops in Ukraine are deliberately attacking the country’s museums, libraries and other cultural institutions, according to a report issued Friday by the U.S. and Ukrainian chapters of the international writers’ organization PEN.

“Culture is not collateral damage in the war against Ukraine; it’s a target, a central pillar of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the war,” the report stated. “Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian culture and language simply don’t exist. By targeting art museums, music halls, libraries, theaters and historical sites, he attempts to make it so.”

PEN cited Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture as saying that 529 “cultural heritage and cultural institutions” have been destroyed or damaged since the war started on Feb. 24. The figure includes both sites of national importance and cultural venues in towns and villages, the report said.

The list includes one of the war’s most notorious incidents – the bombing in March of the main drama theater in the city of Mariupol, where hundreds of people were sheltering from the city’s siege. Some 600 people died in the attack, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Two large inscriptions reading “children” on the ground adjacent to the theater indicated that Russian forces knew civilians were inside and “it seems likely that the theater was targeted for its cultural significance,” the report said.

The PEN report said Russian soldiers also have seized and destroyed Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian-language books from public libraries in occupied regions.

The report acknowledged that “it is not always possible to determine if the bombings of cultural sites are deliberate or the result of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.”

Russian attacks on Ukrainian culture and the language predate the start of the war and began in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported separatist fighters in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine, PEN said.

PEN Ukraine said it has documented 31 civilian writers, artists and other cultural workers killed in Russian attacks this year, and that some other cultural figures have died while fighting with Ukrainian forces.

American author and publisher Dave Eggers, part of the PEN delegation that presented the report, said he thinks the attacks have backfired internationally.

“The irony of Putin’s attempts to erase the culture and heritage of Ukraine (is it) has only enriched their culture and made the world pay attention and be far more interested in Ukrainian writers and traditions,” Eggers said at a news conference.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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Turkey: Russia, US failed to clear militia from Syria border

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s foreign minister charged Friday that the United States and Russia have failed to meet promises to clear Syria’s border with Turkey from Kurdish militants, forcing Ankara to intervene.

Speaking at the Mediterranean Dialogues forum in Rome, Italy, Mevlut Cavusoglu also said Turkey was seeking reconciliation with Syria’s government to facilitate the return of refugees, cooperate in fighting extremists and end the conflict in Syria.

Cavusoglu’s comments came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed last month to launch a new land invasion of northern Syria to target militant Kurdish groups, following a Nov. 13 explosion in Istanbul that killed six people. The Turkish military has launched a barrage of airstrikes on suspected militant targets in northern Syria and Iraq in retaliation.

The Kurdish groups have denied involvement in the bombing and say Turkish strikes have killed civilians and are threatening the fight against the Islamic State group.

“We reached an understanding with the United States and the Russian Federation,” Cavusoglu said. “They committed to push those terrorists further south from our border … But since then, they haven’t met their commitments.”

He was referring to separate deals reached with Moscow and Washington in 2019, under which both agreed to push Syrian Kurdish fighters from a wide swath of territory south of Turkey’s border.

“We need to continue our operation to clean these areas from terrorists and terrorist organizations,” the minister said.

Turkey has carried out a series of incursions into Syria since 2016 and already controls parts of northern Syria.

Both Moscow and Washington, which have forces in northern Syria, have voiced opposition to a possible new Turkish incursion.

Turkey, which had once sought Syrian President Bashar Assad’s removal from office and has strongly backed the opposition in the Syrian conflict, has more recently said it is open to dialogue and reconciliation with Damascus. Turkish and Syrian security officials have held a series of talks, Turkish officials say.

Cavusoglu said Turkey needs to “engage” with Syria’s government for a “voluntary, safe and dignified return” of some of the 3.6 million Syrians that have found refuge in Turkey.

“We need to also cooperate in our fight against terrorist organizations without any discrimination,” Cavusoglu said.

He added: “I hope the (Syrian) regime will understand this: Without such reconciliation, there will be no lasting peace and stability in the country.”


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US passenger killed when big wave hits Antarctic cruise ship

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A U.S. woman was killed and four other passengers injured when a massive wave struck the Viking Polaris cruise ship while it was sailing toward the port of Ushuaia in southern Argentina on an Antarctic cruise, authorities said.

The 62-year-old woman was hit by broken glass when the wave broke cabin windows late Tuesday during a storm, Argentine authorities said. The ship suffered limited damage and arrived in Ushuaia, 1,926 miles (3100 kilometers) south of Buenos Aires, the next day.

“It is with great sadness that we confirmed a guest passed away following the incident,” Viking said in statement. “We have notified the guest’s family and shared our deepest sympathies.”

Neither the statement nor the Argentine Naval Prefecture identified the woman or her hometown.

Viking called it a “rogue wave incident” and said the four other passengers’ injuries were non-life threatening.

The cruise ship was anchored near Ushuaia, where a federal court has opened a case to determine what happened.

The company indicated on its website that to explore remote regions of the world they have “two purpose-built, state-of-the-art small expedition-class ships: Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris.”

The Viking Polaris, a vessel that has luxury facilities and was built in 2022, has capacity for 378 passengers and 256 crew members.


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Talks with breakaway region fail to ease Moldova energy woes

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — An electricity plant in a Moscow-backed breakaway region of Moldova will not resume supplying energy to the rest of the country after a meeting between Moldovan officials and representatives of the Transnistria region failed to produce an agreement Friday, authorities said.

The meetings held in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, focused on a range of bilateral issues and had raised hopes of a breakthrough that would ease a severe energy crisis in one of Europe’s poorest countries.

But the talks moderated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe did not yield any concrete results, including on resuming electricity supplies, Vitaly Ignatyev, the internationally unrecognized Transnistria government’s foreign minister, told reporters.

“Unfortunately, we have not yet come to a solution to any of the problems,” he said, adding that the parties planned to meet again before the end of this year.

The Kuciurgan plant in Transnistria, where Russia has around 1,500 troops based, stopped sending electricity to other parts of Moldova at the beginning of November.

Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Oleg Serebryan said after Friday’s talks that “additional negotiations will be needed” and that one of the government’s priorities is securing low prices “to protect our citizens and businesses from burdensome bills.”

“I must admit that our expectations are moderate,” he said.

The Kuciurgan power plant is operated by the country’s largest energy company, which was privatized in 2004 by Transnistrian authorities and later sold to a Russian state-owned company. Moldova doesn’t recognize the privatization, but it lost control of the plant after a civil war in 1992.

Transnistria’s decision to stop transmitting electricity outside the region came after Russia dramatically reduced natural gas exports to Moldova, which the landlocked country was entirely dependent on. The lost supplies are expected to exacerbate a winter energy crisis in the country of about 2.6 million people, where high prices could leave consumers scrambling to pay their bills.

Moldova’s energy vulnerability has been exposed in recent weeks after it suffered two major blackouts as a result of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s power grid. Moldova’s Soviet-era systems remain interconnected with Ukraine’s, which is what caused the shutdowns.

Moldova’s pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, called Moscow’s decision to cut gas supplies “political blackmail,” and accused the Kremlin of trying to push Moldova off its path toward joining the European Union. Moldova became an E.U. candidate in June, on the same day as Ukraine did.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has created concerns the conflict might spread into Moldova via Transnistria.

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McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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11 face death over conservationist’s murder in Tanzania

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A high court in Tanzania on Friday sentenced 11 people to death for the murder of a conservationist in the East African country more than five years ago.

Anti-poaching activist Wayne Lotter, a South African national, was shot dead in August 2017 while riding in a taxi in Tanzania’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam.

Those sentenced to death include nine Tanzanians and two citizens of neighboring Burundi.

Tanzania hasn’t carried out an execution in decades.

Lotter was the director and co-founder of the PALMS Foundation, a nongovernmental organization which said he had helped to train thousands of game scouts throughout Tanzania and developed an “intelligence-based approach” to anti-poaching that had success in countering wildlife trafficking.

Poachers in Tanzania target various wildlife, including elephants that are often killed for their tusks.


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Crucial South Africa meeting on president’s fate delayed

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — An urgent meeting of South Africa’s ruling party to discuss the future of President Cyril Ramaphosa has been delayed as calls continue for his resignation amid a scandal over money stolen from his farm.

The African National Congress’ national executive committee on Friday had been expected to discuss a parliamentary report which suggests Ramaphosa may have violated anti-corruption laws related to the theft in 2020 of millions of dollars that had been stashed in a couch. The committee has the power to force the president to resign, and has done so in the past.

The party’s treasurer-general, Paul Mashatile, told reporters that top ANC officials would discuss the report before reconvening ahead of a parliamentary debate Tuesday. Lawmakers are expected to debate the report and vote on whether to proceed with an impeachment process.

Ramaphosa has denied wrongdoing, saying the stolen money was proceeds from the sale of animals at his farm and that he was “not involved in any criminal conduct.” However, the parliamentary report questions his explanation as well as the source of the money and why it wasn’t disclosed to financial authorities. It cited a potential conflict between the president’s business and official interests.

The president still has some support within the ruling party’s national executive committee and its parliamentary caucus, but the new report has raised serious questions about his handling of the theft at his farm and the source of the money.


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WHO pleased to see China ease harsh zero COVID policies

LONDON (AP) — A top official at the World Health Organization said the U.N. agency was “pleased” to see China loosening some of its coronavirus restrictions, saying “it’s really important that governments listen to their people when the people are in pain.”

At a press briefing on Friday, WHO emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan said the organization was glad to see China “adjusting their current strategies” in trying to recalibrate their response to COVID-19.

Last week, huge protests against the severe COVID-19 restrictions in China erupted in numerous cities, in the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist party in decades.

“We’ve all had to deal with restrictions of movement, we’ve all had to deal with having our lives changed and frankly, it’s exhausting,” Ryan said. The WHO has previously described China’s “zero-COVID” strategy as “not sustainable, ” saying that the super-infectious omicron variant made trying to stop every single case of COVID impossible.

Ryan said using imported messenger RNA vaccines, like those made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna, would be a “solid option” for China to boost its immunization coverage. China’s home-grown vaccines have proven to be less effective and scientists say any protection they provided is likely to have faded with the emergence of omicron.

The decision of which vaccines to use “are choices that sovereign governments need to make based on the best benefit to their population,” Ryan said. He said future strategies should balance “the control of the virus with the lives, the livelihoods and well-being and human rights of the people in China.”

China has been developing its own version of an mRNA vaccine and has yet to authorize either of the shots made by Western companies.

Unlike in many Western countries, vaccination rates among China’s elderly are lagging; only 66% of people over 80 have got one shot, while 40% have received a booster, according to China’s National Health Commission.

By comparison, 93% of Americans 65 and over have received a full course of vaccine and another 2% have at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Numerous public health officials have warned that China’s zero-COVID strategy, which involves locking down entire communities if infections are found, serves little purpose given how easily the omicron variant spreads. But without significantly raising the country’s vaccination rate quickly, releasing those restrictions could produce a surge of hospitalizations and deaths that could overwhelm the health system.

In recent days, Chinese authorities have loosened some COVID-19 protocols in cities including Guangzhou and Chengdu, easing testing requirements and controls on movement. Still, many of the rules that brought people into the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other cities remain in force.

The announcements easing restrictions didn’t mention last weekend’s protests of the human cost of anti-virus measures that confine millions of people to their homes. But the timing and publicity suggested Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government was trying to mollify public anger.

Globally, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that about 90% of the population now has some kind of immunity to the coronavirus via prior infection or vaccination, and that the world is inching closer to the end of the pandemic.

“We are much closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over, but we’re not there yet,” Tedros said.


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Brother of Russia-imprisoned American says contact resumed

MOSCOW (AP) — The family of Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, said Friday that he has resumed contact after unexpectedly becoming unreachable in November.

Along with WNBA star Brittney Griner, Whelan is the focus of efforts by the United States to arrange a prisoner swap with Russia.

The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”

Whelan’s brother, David, said in an emailed statement that Paul had called his parents early U.S. time on Friday, the first time any family member had spoken with him since Nov. 23. The family had been told that he was moved to a prison hospital, but that the reason for that was unclear because he had not spoken of health problems.

In the call, he did not explain why he was at the hospital, but said he’d been given “special dispensation” to call, indicating he had been prohibited from calling previously, David Whelan said.

“So the call at least acts as a ‘proof of life’ even if nothing else is explained,” he said.

Alexei Tyurkin, the chairman of the prison monitoring commission in the Mordovia region where Whelan is incarcerated, said he was in the prison hospital for “planned treatment,” but did not elaborate, according to state news agency RIA-Novosti.

Whelan, a former Marine who later worked as a corporate security executive, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018. His lawyer said Whelan was handed a flash drive that had classified information on it that he didn’t know about.

Whelan was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in August for drug possession after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February. Her prominence as an athlete, including two Olympic gold medals, has drawn wide attention to her case.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday whether a swap is possible before the year’s end, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, responded: “There always is a chance.”

“Regrettably, there have been a few occasions when it seemed that a decision in favor of it was about to be made, but it never happened,” Ryabkov said without elaborating.


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Malaysian PM Anwar to be finance minister in new Cabinet

KUALA LUMPUR. Malaysia (AP) — New Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said Friday he will also serve as finance minister as he unveiled a leaner Cabinet with many new faces in his unity government.

In a move that appeared to contradict his anti-corruption platform, Anwar named the graft-tainted head of a smaller bloc as one of his two deputies.

Malaysian politics took an unprecedented turn after a Nov. 19 general election failed to produce an outright winner. Anwar’s Alliance of Hope led with 82 seats but fell short of the 112 needed for a majority, while an Islamic nationalist bloc won a surprising 73 seats.

Malaysia’s king. who appoints the lawmaker he believes has majority support as prime minister, later named Anwar as the country’s 10th leader, ending days of uncertainty.

Anwar, 75, later won the backing of his traditional rival, the National Front, and a bloc from two states on Borneo island to secure a majority. He was sworn in a week ago.

He must work now to ensure his new government is stable. Malaysia has been rocked by political turmoil that has seen three prime ministers in the last four years.

The new Cabinet reflects compromises that Anwar has made. He named National Front chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is battling graft charges, and a Borneo leader, Fadillah Yusof, as his deputies. Zambry Abdul Kadir, secretary-general of the National Front, was named foreign minister.

Analysts say Zahid’s appointment is crucial to ensure support from the long-ruling National Front, led by his United Malays National Organization. Zahid played a key role in getting UMNO, which has been split, to support Anwar’s unity government.

“Zahid’s appointment will stain Anwar’s government, but at this point, survival of his government by retaining UMNO support is paramount,” said Oh Ei Sun of Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs. He said it was surprising that Anwar took on the finance portfolio.

Anwar, a former finance minister in the 1990s, said at a news conference that he would handle finance for now because he wants to revamp the system and revive confidence in the economy.

His Cabinet has 28 ministers, four fewer than the previous government. A majority are Malays. He hasn’t named deputy ministers yet.

“The priority of the unity government is to ensure good governance and finding steps to ease the burden of the people,” Anwar said.


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European security org faces existential crisis at meeting

LODZ, Poland (AP) — A security organization born in the Cold War to maintain peace in Europe ended a high-level meeting Friday without a final resolution, underlining the existential crisis it is facing amid Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The war launched by one member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe against another has created hurdles for the 57-nation group. It makes decisions based on the consensus of all members, which rendered it impossible for the vast majority that condemn the war to get through a final resolution opposing Russia’s aggression.

Running through the two-day meeting of foreign ministers and other representatives, the OSCE’s first such high-level meeting since the Feb. 24 invasion, was the question of how it can continue to function without consensus from Russia and its ally Belarus, which say they have been unfairly isolated.

“I have no doubts that in the next few years it will be extremely difficult for this organization to deliver on its mandate,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said at a concluding news conference. Poland currently holds the organization’s rotating chair.

The problems facing the organization predate the war. Russia has hampered decisions on budgets, senior appointments and other critical work for years.

The Vienna-based OSCE has a wide-ranging mission to protect peace, with a strong emphasis placed on human rights in addition to arms control and other military security issues. The organization is best known to the public for its role in monitoring elections.

But it has struggled amid a real war. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the organization evacuated its staff members working on a peace mission in Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists in the east had fought Ukrainian forces for the previous eight years.

Three Ukrainian employees remain “unlawfully detained” by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine since April, OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid said Friday.

Still, Schmid argued that the organization was “not paralyzed” and said it was finding ways to work around Russia’s obstruction, for instance by using a donor-funded program to do demining work and to help survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine.

Notably absent from the conference was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was banned from entering Poland because he is on a European Union sanctions list. Lavrov spent 40 minutes of a news conference in Moscow on Thursday complaining about his exclusion as the meeting opened in Lodz, Poland.

North Macedonia is set to take over chairing the OSCE in 2023. Bujar Osmani, the country’s foreign minister, said that despite all the obstacles he would not declare this week’s meeting a failure.

It “took place against the backdrop of an all-out war in Europe, unprecedented circumstances since this organization has been established,” Osmani said, adding that many participants agreed the OSCE was needed, especially now.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the OSCE’s recent meeting had been vital for showing a united front against Russia. and that the organization was finding “creative ways” to get around Russian vetoes.

“Of course this has been the most difficult year for the OSCE since it was founded, but in my view it was also the most important year,” she told reporters in Berlin Friday, after returning from Poland.

The OSCE was established in 1975 and became a platform for dialogue during the Cold War.

Some members were critical of Poland for banning Lavrov from the meeting in Lodz and voiced hope that North Macedonia’s chairmanship next year will create new openings for dialogue in the organization.

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Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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