North Macedonia Gets New Prime Minister

The North Macedonia’s parliament late Sunday elected Social Democrat technocrat Dimitar Kovacevski as prime minister after more than two months of political turmoil in the country. Kovacevski, a former deputy finance minister, succeeds Zoran Zaev, who stepped down last month following his party’s heavy defeat in municipal elections. The new coalition Cabinet, led by Kovacevski’s Social Democrats (SDSM), was backed by 62 MPs of those present in the 120-seat parliament. Forty-six lawmakers voted against. Presenting his agenda to the parliament on Saturday, Kovacevski had said a key goal of his government would be “higher and sustainable economic growth.” He also promised to address the country’s energy crisis and to try to bring it closer to the European Union. Kovacevski, 47, assumed leadership of the SDSM helm last month. He takes over as prime minister after the previous government, also SDSM-led, survived a no-confidence vote in November after weeks of negotiations with smaller parties. Ever since however, the opposition has accused the government of lacking legitimacy and has called for early elections. Kovacevski insists the elections will be held as scheduled in 2024. As deputy finance minister Kovacevski, who holds a PhD in economics, kept a low profile. Political analysts have questioned whether he will be able to negotiate the challenges the nation faces. At home, they say, he will have to face the complex relations within the ruling coalition and the corruption crippling the country’s economy. His biggest foreign policy challenge is thought to be getting progress on EU membership talks, which are stalled because of the opposition of Bulgaria. In 2019, the country added the geographical qualifier “North” to its official name to distinguish it from the Greek province of Macedonia. The change enabled North Macedonia to join NATO and was a precondition for paving the way for its …

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Alekos Fassianos, Known as ‘Greek Picasso,’ Dies at Age 86

Greek artist Alekos Fassianos, whose work drew on his country’s mythology and folklore, died Sunday at the age of 86, his daughter Viktoria told AFP. Described by some admirers as a modern-day Matisse and by others as the Greek Picasso, his works, which included paintings, lithographs, ceramics and tapestries, have been shown around the world. While he resisted comparison with Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, he admired both artists, but insisted he had drawn on many different influences. Fassianos, who had been bedridden at his home in the suburbs of Athens for several months, died in his sleep, Viktoria Fassianou said.  Ill health had forced the artist to put down his paintbrushes in 2019. “All the work of Fassianos, the colors that filled his canvases, the multidimensional forms that dominated his paintings, exude Greece,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a statement. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis paid tribute to Fassianos as a painter who “always balanced between realism and abstraction.” Fassianos, he added, “leaves us a precious heritage.” The artist split his time between Greece and France, where he studied lithography at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. The website devoted to his work says his style was forged in the 1960s and that his main themes have always been man, nature and the environment.  From Paris to Munich, Tokyo to Sao Paolo, Fassianos’s works were shown around the world. Examples of his work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and in the Pinacotheque in Athens. “Greekness has always been his inspiration, from mythology to contemporary Greece,” the artist’s wife, Mariza Fassianou, told AFP during a visit to his home last year. “He has always believed that an artist should create with what they know.” Her husband would work on the floor or …

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Ex-President Poroshenko to Return to Ukraine to Face Treason Charges

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he is returning to Ukraine to fight treason charges — even though he views them as politically motivated — because he believes that fighting them is part of his defense of national unity. Poroshenko spoke Sunday at a news conference in Warsaw hours before he is to fly Monday from the Polish capital to Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is to face the allegations in court. A prosecutor has alleged that Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, was involved in the sale of large amounts of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. He is owner of the Roshen confectionery empire. The Kyiv court has already frozen Poroshenko’s assets as part of its investigation into the allegations of high treason. Poroshenko insists that he is innocent. He accuses his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of seeking to discredit him politically to distract from Ukraine’s widespread problems, including economic woes and rising deaths from COVID-19. “I will return to Ukraine to fight for Ukraine,” Poroshenko said, adding that he considers fighting the “politically motivated” charges to be part of his patriotic fight for the nation. Despite the seriousness of the charges, Poroshenko seemed upbeat Sunday. When asked by a reporter if he expects to be arrested upon his return home, he answered, “Definitely not.” The charges are the latest in a string of accusations leveled against Poroshenko since he was defeated by Zelenskiy in 2019. The allegations have generated concerns of undemocratic score-settling in Ukraine and alarmed Ukraine’s allies. They come as Russia has built up troops along the Ukraine border and the United States has voiced concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning an invasion of Ukraine. Poroshenko said he sees charges he faces as harmful for the country at …

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French Parliament Approves COVID Vaccine Pass

France’s parliament gave final approval on Sunday to the government’s latest measures to tackle COVID-19, including a vaccine pass contested by anti-vaccine protesters. Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted 215-58, paving the way for the measure to enter force in the coming days. The new law, which had a rough ride through parliament with opposition parties finding some of its provisions too tough, will require people to have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains. Currently, unvaccinated people can enter such places with the results of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Nearly 78% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry on Saturday. President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to seek a second term in an April election, told Le Parisien paper this month that he wanted to irritate unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting the COVID vaccine. Thousands of anti-vaccine protesters demonstrated in Paris and some other cities on Saturday against the law, but their numbers were down sharply from the week before, just after Macron’s remarks. France is in the grips of its fifth COVID-19 wave with daily new cases regularly hitting record levels over 300,000. Nonetheless the number of serious cases putting people in ICU wards is much lower than the first wave in March-April 2020. …

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Ukraine Blames Russia for Cyberattack

Ukraine Sunday blamed Russia for the defacement of government websites, contending it was part of Moscow’s “hybrid war” against the former Soviet republic. With Russia already massing 100,000 military troops along Ukraine’s eastern flank, Ukrainian officials said, “All evidence indicates that Russia is behind the cyberattack.” “Moscow continues to wage a hybrid war and is actively building up its forces in the information and cyberspaces,” the ministry statement said, after Microsoft said dozens of computer systems at various Ukrainian government agencies had been infected with destructive malware disguised as ransomware. Russia has repeatedly denied Ukrainian accusations of hacking. The cyberattack comes amid the threat of a Russian invasion, eight years after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.   Diplomatic talks to resolve the tense standoff appear to be at a stalemate after several meetings in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna last week did not result in any resolution. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” show that the United States remains ready for further diplomatic talks with Russia over its troop deployment but will respond with significant economic sanctions against Moscow if President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Microsoft said Saturday that it first detected the malware on Thursday, coinciding with the attack that simultaneously took about 70 Ukrainian government websites offline temporarily.  Some material in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. …

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Iran Confirms Again Imprisoning French-Iranian Academic 

Iranian authorities confirmed that they have re-incarcerated French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah for breaking house arrest restrictions.  The judiciary news website Mizan.news on January 16 quoted the deputy head of the judiciary, Kazem Gharibabadi, as saying Adelkhah, who had been furloughed with an electronic-monitoring bracelet, violated judicial restrictions “dozens of times.”  The official claimed that Adelkhah, 62, violated the limits of her house arrest “despite repeated warnings from judicial authorities.”  On January 12, the French Foreign Ministry condemned Adelkhah’s new imprisonment and demanded her immediate release, saying her case has negative consequences on the relationship between Paris and Tehran.  She holds both Iranian and French passports, but Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationality. Iranian officials insist that Adelkhah is an Iranian citizen and have denied French consular staff access to her.  Adelkhah, an expert on Iran and Shi’a Islam at France’s prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, was arrested on June 5, 2019, at Tehran airport.  Adelkhah was given a five-year sentence for conspiring against national security. Iranian authorities have not provided any solid evidence to back the charges.  In October 2020, she was allowed to live under house arrest at her sister’s home in Tehran, wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet.  Adelkhah is one of at least a dozen Western nationals believed to be held in Iran. Rights groups accuse Iran of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West.  Iran denies it, though there have been such prisoner exchanges in the past. In March 2020, Iran released Adelkhah’s French colleague and partner, Roland Marchal, in a prisoner exchange with France.  Marchal, who was arrested in June 2019 alongside Adelkhah, was swapped for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.  Information from AFP and AP was used in this report  …

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Microsoft Discloses Malware Attack on Ukraine Government Networks

Microsoft said late Saturday that dozens of computer systems at an unspecified number of Ukrainian government agencies have been infected with destructive malware disguised as ransomware, a disclosure suggesting an attention-grabbing defacement attack on official websites was a diversion. The extent of the damage was not immediately clear. The attack comes as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms and diplomatic talks to resolve the tense stand-off appear stalled. Microsoft said in a short blog post that amounted to the clanging of an industry alarm that it first detected the malware on Thursday. That would coincide with the attack that simultaneously took some 70 government websites temporarily offline. The disclosure followed a Reuters report earlier in the day quoting a top Ukrainian security official as saying the defacement was indeed cover for a malicious attack. Separately, a top private sector cybersecurity executive in Kyiv told The Associated Press how the attack succeeded: The intruders penetrated the government networks through a shared software supplier in a so-called supply-chain attack in the fashion of the 2000 SolarWinds Russian cyberespionage campaign targeting the U.S. government. Microsoft said in a different, technical post that the affected systems “span multiple government, non-profit, and information technology organizations.” It said it did not know how many more organizations in Ukraine or elsewhere might be affected but said it expected to learn of more infections. “The malware is disguised as ransomware but, if activated by the attacker, would render the infected computer system inoperable,” Microsoft said. In short, it lacks a ransom recovery mechanism. Microsoft said the malware “executes when an associated device is powered down,” a typical initial reaction to a ransomware attack. Microsoft said it was not yet able to assess the intent of the destructive activity or associate the attack with any known …

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Roman Villa Housing Caravaggio up for Auction Amid Legal Dispute

A Roman villa housing the only mural by Caravaggio and at the center of a legal battle between a former Playboy model and the sons of her late husband, an Italian prince, will go up for auction Tuesday. The sprawling property, valued at 471 million euros (almost $540 million), is a Baroque jewel with gorgeous gardens and a valuable art collection that also includes frescoes by Guercino. Art lovers are demanding the Italian state step in to buy the spectacular property, arguing that artistic treasures should be protected and available for public viewing. But the government might not have enough to pay for it — the auction is only open to those who can put up 10% of the starting price of 353 million euros — and rumored buyers include Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei. The auction was ordered by a Rome court following a dispute among the heirs of Prince Nicolo Ludovisi Boncompagni, the head of the family who died in 2018. The dispute is between the prince’s third and final wife, Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi, a 72-year-old American former real estate broker and actor who once posed for Playboy, and the children from his first marriage. Auction of the century The residence of the noble Ludovisi Boncompagni family for hundreds of years, the 2,800-square-meter Casino dell’Aurora is located in central Rome between the Via Veneto and the Spanish Steps. Its sale is being held behind closed doors and has been dubbed by Italian media as the “auction of the century” in its breathless reporting on the legal wrangling around it and who could buy it. There are those who believe the cultural gem should be preserved for the nation. Almost 35,000 people have called on the Italian government to exercise “its pre-emptive right” to buy the …

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Ukraine Suspects Group Linked to Belarus Intelligence Over Cyberattack

Kyiv believes a hacker group linked to Belarusian intelligence carried out a cyberattack that hit Ukrainian government websites this week and used malware similar to that used by a group tied to Russian intelligence, a senior Ukrainian security official said. Serhiy Demedyuk, deputy secretary of the national security and defense council, told Reuters that Ukraine blamed Friday’s attack – which defaced government websites with threatening messages – on a group known as UNC1151, and that it was cover for more destructive actions behind the scenes. His comments offer the first detailed analysis by Kyiv on the suspected culprits behind the cyberattack on dozens of websites. Officials on Friday said Russia was probably involved but gave no details. Belarus is a close ally of Russia. The cyberattack splashed websites with a warning to “be afraid and expect the worst” at a time when Russia has massed troops near Ukraine’s borders, and Kyiv and Washington fear Moscow is planning a new military assault on Ukraine. Russia has dismissed such fears as “unfounded.” The office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Demedyuk’s remarks. Russia’s foreign ministry also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his remarks. It has previously denied involvement in cyberattacks, including against Ukraine. “The defacement of the sites was just a cover for more destructive actions that were taking place behind the scenes and the consequences of which we will feel in the near future,” Demedyuk said in written comments. In a reference to UNC1151, he said: “This is a cyber-espionage group affiliated with the special services of the Republic of Belarus.” ‘Track Record’ Demedyuk, who used to be the head of Ukraine’s cyber police, said the group had a track record of targeting Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and …

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Kosovo Bans Serbian Vote on Constitutional Changes on its Soil

Kosovo’s parliament on Saturday passed a resolution banning ethnic Serbs from voting on Kosovan soil in Serbia’s national referendum on constitutional amendments. Serbia will hold a referendum on Sunday on amendments to the constitution that would change how judges and prosecutors are elected, a move the government says is aimed at securing an independent judiciary, a condition for EU membership. Kosovo’s independence backers—the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and the EU mission—urged Prime Minister Albin Kurti to allow Serbs in Kosovo to vote in the referendum. But in an extraordinary session on Saturday afternoon, 76 out of 120 deputies voted in favor of a declaration banning Serbia from opening polling centers in Kosovo. Kurti told parliament that establishing polling stations in majority Serb areas of Kosovo would be against the constitution, and that ethnic Serbs could vote by mail or in Belgrade’s government liaison office in Pristina. “Kosovo is an independent and sovereign state and should be treated as such,” Kurti said. Serbia, which still considers Kosovo part of its territory, has been organizing elections for its ethnic kin since the Kosovo War ended in 1999. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence but has pledged to normalize relations with its former breakaway province before joining the EU. The head of Serbian Office for Cooperation with Kosovo said the ban was aimed at “annulling political and civic rights of Serbs [in Kosovo].” “Kurti and his extremists should not think that in the future they will succeed in banning Serbs in Kosovo from voting, notably in April 3 elections,” Petar Petkovic said in a statement. Serbia is holding presidential and parliamentary elections on April 3. Early on Saturday, Kosovo police confiscated two trucks of the Serbian election commission transporting ballot papers as they crossed the border …

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What’s in a Royal Title? A Lot, Apparently

Only three times before has Buckingham Palace pressed what for the British monarchy is the “nuclear button” and transformed a royal into a mere private citizen. After a 90-minute meeting with his mother, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, followed by a terse public communique, Prince Andrew—who is battling a civil sex case trial in the U.S. over allegations of sexual assault—last week became the fourth member of the Windsor family to be stripped of the right to be styled a Royal Highness. The first to suffer the humiliation was the former King Edward VIII after abdicating the throne in 1936 to marry an American divorcée. Edward’s demotion was an act of punishment, say royal historians. Andrew’s, though, is being seen as a ruthless move of self-protection by a monarchy that has decided it can’t wait to see if Andrew, also known as the Duke of York, will be able to clear his name in court. The queen reportedly made the decision after discussions with her eldest son, and heir apparent, Prince Charles, who’s third in line of succession, and his son, Prince William. Andrew is ninth in line. Charles ignored reporters Friday when they shouted questions at him about Andrew and the decision to demote him.   The removal last week of HRH status is another stage in the queen’s endeavor to distance Britain’s monarchy as far away from Andrew, age 61, as she can—for both political and legal reasons—as he defends himself against sex abuse allegations leveled against him by Virginia Giuffre. Giuffre claims Andrew “committed sexual assault and battery” upon her on three occasions in 2001. Andrew vehemently denies the allegations. The 38-year-old Giuffre, formerly Virginia Roberts, says she was trafficked by the late, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein to have sex with Andrew when she was 17 years old, allegations …

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Russia Detains 3 More Suspected REvil Group Members

A Moscow court on Saturday remanded in custody three more suspected members of the ransomware crime group REvil for illegal trafficking of funds, a day after Russia claimed it had dismantled the group at the request of the United States. The court identified the three men as Mikhail Golovachuk, Ruslan Khansvyarov and Dmitry Korotayev.   In a rare apparent demonstration of U.S.-Russian collaboration at a time of high tensions between the two over Ukraine, Russian authorities detained and charged the REVil group’s members this week. A police and FSB domestic intelligence operation searched 25 addresses, detaining 14 people, the FSB said Friday, listing assets it had seized, including $600,000 of computer equipment and 20 luxury cars. The United States welcomed the arrests. The United States said in November it was offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of anyone holding a key position in the REvil group. A source familiar with the case told Interfax the group’s members with Russian citizenship would not be handed over to the United States. …

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UN: Hate Speech in Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia an Incitement to Violence

The U.N. human rights office condemns the rise of hate speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, warning it could incite violence between Serbian and Muslim ethnic groups that fought a devastating war following the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Religious holiday celebrations in the autonomous Serb Republic of Srpska last weekend unleashed a torrent of nationalistic rhetoric and hate speech targeting certain communities. U.N. human rights officials say individuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia glorified atrocity crimes and convicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.    U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell calls the incidents an affront to survivors, including those who returned to their homes after the conflict. “The failure to prevent and sanction such acts, which fuel a climate of extreme anxiety, fear, and insecurity in some communities, is a major obstacle to trust-building and reconciliation,” said Throssell. “As we have repeatedly highlighted, the rise in hate speech, the denial of genocide and other atrocity crimes and the glorification of war criminals in the Western Balkans highlight the failure to comprehensively address the past.”    About 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995.  More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered in July 1995 in the Srebrenica massacre, also known as the Srebrenica genocide.  The killings were perpetrated under the command of Ratko Mladic, who led the Army of Republika Srpska. Elections are due to take place in Serbia in April and later in October in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Throssell warns failure to prevent and sanction inflammatory hate speech will exacerbate the already extremely tense political environment. “We stress once again the need for the authorities in Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina to abide by their international human rights obligations to ensure the rights to truth, justice, …

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Ethiopia Objects to Alleged ‘Misconduct’ of WHO Chief Tedros

The government of Ethiopia has sent a letter to the World Health Organization, accusing its Ethiopian director-general of “misconduct” after his sharp criticism of the war and humanitarian crisis in the country. Ethiopia nominated Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to be the head of the U.N. health agency four years ago, but says he has “not lived up to the integrity and professional expectations required from his office,” accusing him of interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, according to a press release issued late Thursday. “Through his acts, (Tedros) spread harmful misinformation and compromised WHO’s reputation, independence and credibility,” Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs said.   WHO had no immediate response to the claims.  Tedros, an ethnic Tigrayan, has repeatedly deplored the situation in his home country and called for humanitarian access to the conflict-ridden region of Ethiopia.  “Nowhere in the world are we witnessing hell like Tigray,” said Tedros at a media briefing Wednesday. He cited a missive WHO had received recently from a physician in the region, who said health authorities had run out of basic medicines for diseases including diabetes in June and were now using expired stocks and intravenous fluids.  Health officials in the Tigray capital have described the same to The Associated Press. Tedros condemned Ethiopia’s blockade of international access to Tigray, saying that WHO had not been allowed to send any supplies to the region since July, noting the U.N. agency had access to Syria and Yemen even during their worst conflicts.  He said there should be “unfettered” humanitarian access to Tigray and said that “just respecting the constitutional order would bring this problem into a peaceful conclusion.” He continued: “Of course, I am from that region and from the northern part of Ethiopia. But I am saying this without any bias.” The Ethiopian government said Tedros …

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Canadian Foreign Minister to Visit Ukraine, Vows to Deter Russian Aggression

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly will visit Kyiv next week to reaffirm support for Ukrainian sovereignty and reinforce efforts to deter “aggressive actions” by Russia, Ottawa said Saturday. Moscow has stationed more than 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and the United States said on Friday it feared Russia was preparing a pretext to invade if diplomacy failed to meet its objectives. Canada, with a sizeable and politically influential population of Ukrainian ethnic descent, has taken a hard line with Moscow since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. “The amassing of Russian troops and equipment in and around Ukraine jeopardizes security in the entire region. These aggressive actions must be deterred,” Joly said in a statement. “Canada will work with its international partners to uphold the rules-based international order.” Joly will meet Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and travel to the west of the country to speak to a 200-strong Canadian training mission that has been there since 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday and “emphasized that any military incursion into Ukraine would have serious consequences, including coordinated sanctions,” Trudeau’s office said. Canada has imposed punitive measures on more than 440 individuals and entities over the annexation of Crimea. Joly, who starts a weeklong trip to Europe on Sunday, will visit Brussels to see NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. She will also go to Paris for talks with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the statement said.      …

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In Ukraine’s Trenches, Strays Bring Respite to Russia-Wary Troops

With Russian troops massing and the specter of war looming over the trenches of eastern Ukraine, soldiers in the dugouts have found solace in the unlikely companionship of stray cats and dogs.  In a muddy and freezing trench near the town of Avdiivka, 21-year-old Ukrainian soldier Mykyta was petting a dog adopted by the troops as he explained how she had become a valued asset on the frontline.  “She immediately barks or growls if the enemy is planning an attack. It’s safer and calmer with her — no wonder they say that a dog is man’s best friend,” he told AFP, declining to give his last name over security concerns.  More than two million Ukrainians were displaced from their homes and many pets were abandoned after fighting broke out in 2014 between pro-Moscow separatists and Kyiv’s army.  The conflict, which has claimed 13,000 lives, has simmered in recent years with only sporadic reports of escalations and military deaths in eastern Ukraine.  But that has changed recently with Kyiv’s Western allies accusing Russia of building up tens of thousands of troops around Ukraine’s borders in preparation for a possible invasion.  Those tensions are at the center of intensive negotiations this week between the United States, NATO and Russia in Geneva and Brussels, with both sides accusing the other of ratcheting up tensions.  “The animals aren’t to blame — the war is,” said 49-year-old soldier Volodymyr, who also declined to give his last name citing security concerns.  An AFP journalist said around 15 cats and several dogs had taken up residence together with the soldiers in Volodymyr’s section of the trenches.  “They were abandoned. They had to fend for themselves. We have to feed them,” Volodymyr said, pouring leftover soup for the cats.  ‘Talisman’ puppy  After spending months on the frontline with …

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