Monday 20 November 2017

Portrait of the Week: Russian flammable liquid weapons seen in Ukraine

German chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her popularity slump to its lowest level in four years, reflecting growing concern over the influx of refugees

FAULT LINES: Members of the Ukraine National Guard in a military drill near Kiev
FAULT LINES: Members of the Ukraine National Guard in a military drill near Kiev Newsdesk Newsdesk

International monitors say they have spotted a new kind of Russian weapons system in rebel-held Ukraine this week, possible evidence of Moscow's continued interest in Ukraine even as it focuses on Syria.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is monitoring a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, reported that its monitors had seen a mobile TOS-1 'Buratino' weapons system for the first time.

The Buratino is equipped with thermobaric warheads, which spread a flammable liquid around a target and then ignite it. It can destroy several city blocks in one strike and cause indiscriminate damage.

Only Russia produces the system and it was not exported to Ukraine before the conflict broke out, according to IHS Jane's Group and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which track arms exports.

The OSCE's findings are embarrassing for the Kremlin, which has toned down its rhetoric on Ukraine and shifted attention to Syria, where it has begun air strikes.

Russia estimates its air strike campaign in Syria could last three to four months, the head of the lower house of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee said on Friday.

"There is always a risk of being bogged down, but in Moscow we are talking about an operation of three to four months," Alexei Pushkov, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, told French radio station Europe 1. He added that the strikes were going to intensify.

Pushkov was speaking a few hours before Putin was due to meet leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine in Paris for talks about Ukraine, which were likely to be overshadowed by the conflict in Syria.

He said the strikes mainly targeted Islamic State forces in spite of reports they had concentrated on opponents to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

"The opponents to Bashar are very close to Daesh (Islamic State)," Pushkov added. US sources have said the Russians actually hit facilities of a US-backed group, some of whose rebels received training and support from the CIA.

He said that the US-led coalition had "pretended" to bomb Islamic State forces for a year. "They pretended. . . Only 20pc of their (US-led coalition) operations produced results, 80pc of them did not lead to bombardments, they returned to base for different reasons."

Russia, which launched its first air strikes on Wednesday, has been supporting Assad's regime since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011.

Putin and US president Barack Obama discussed the crisis on the sidelines of the General Assembly last Monday and agreed to start talks to avert military clashes by parallel air campaigns.

Spain's parliament last week approved measures giving the Constitutional Court powers to fine or suspend authorities that do not carry out its sentences, shoring up legal powers to deal with any bid for independence from Catalonia.

Secessionist parties in the wealthy region last Sunday secured an absolute majority in terms of seats in the local parliament in an election seen by some as a proxy vote on independence but won only 48 percent of the votes cast, less than the majority that would be needed in a referendum.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused to allow the region, with its own language and culture, to hold a referendum on independence, saying it is against Spain's constitution, and has blocked any attempts to change that decision in the courts.

The inconclusive result of the election had lessened the chance of a split of the region from Spain, Rajoy said in a television interview.

The measure, easily passed given the absolute majority of Rajoy's ruling People's Party (PP), will come into effect before December's general election and will allow the court to force the resignation of officials and civil servants, including politicians, if they do not comply with rulings.

It will also give the court the ability to level fines of up to €30,000 on officials.

Catalan parties said it had been drawn up specifically to target the acting head of the Catalan regional government, Artur Mas.

The PP said the law was designed to strengthen the power of the courts. The centre-right party has said the measures are a very clear message to those who want to break away from Spain.

Rajoy said he would back any decision from the Constitutional Court to sack the head of the Catalan government if he took steps towards independence that go against the constitution.

The courts have been key in Madrid's fight to block any Catalan bid for independence.

On Tuesday, Catalonia's Supreme Court indicted Mas, for pushing ahead with a referendum on independence from Spain last year, even though the courts ruled the vote unconstitutional.

The preliminary charges encompass disobedience, abuse of authority and usurping authority.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her popularity slump to its lowest level in nearly four years, reflecting growing concern over the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, a recent poll showed.

The Deutschlandtrend poll for public broadcaster ARD showed a nine-point plunge in Merkel's popularity to 54pc. While some of her European peers might envy that figure, it was her worst rating since December 2011, when the eurozone financial crisis was raging.

The same survey showed that 51pc of respondents - up 13 percentage points in the past month - now say they are scared by the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany.

More than 200,000 migrants are estimated to have arrived in Germany in September alone - roughly the same as for the whole of last year - and the government estimates that 800,000 or more could come over the course of 2015.

Merkel was initially celebrated at home and abroad for her welcoming approach to the refugees, many of whom are fleeing conflict in the Middle East.

But as the flow has continued and German facilities have been stretched to the limit, she has come under increasing criticism.

Sunday Independent

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