Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko released by Russia in prisoner swap – Charles D’Alberto

Savchenko flies home from Russia in deal that sees release of two Russian servicemen by Kiev
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A Ukrainian pilot detained in Russia since 2014 has arrived home following a dramatic prisoner swap with Russia.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said a plane carrying Nadiya Savchenko had landed in Kiev. He went to the airport to meet her. She arrived from Russia in exchange for the release of two Russians held by Ukraine. Poroshenko is due to address the nation shortly. Dozens of journalists gathered at Borispol airport’s terminal B.

Savchenko’s return marks a triumphant moment for Ukraine, where she is viewed as a national hero. It also marks a significant moment of detente between Moscow and Kiev, and a breakthrough in on-off diplomatic negotiations conducted in Minsk.

It comes a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia, imposed following Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his covert invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Quoting unnamed sources, Kommersant newspaper reported that the exchange was agreed late on Monday during a telephone conversation between Putin, Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.

Russian media said that a special presidential plane sent by Putin had taken off from Kiev to Moscow. On board were Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov. They both told Reuters in interviews last year they were Russian special forces soldiers who were captured while carrying out a secret operation in the rebel-held Donbas region.

The plane arrived back at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, where the two men were reunited with their wives. Putin “had signed an order to pardon pilot Savchenko”, Russian media reported. The president was quoted as saying that he hoped the prisoner exchange would reduce tensions in the Donbas region.

Earlier Savchenko’s lawyer Mark Feygin confirmed she was on her way home. He wrote on Twitter: “Two years ago I promised Ukrainians I would do everything possible to free Nadiya… I know how to keep my word. She’s heading home, to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko released by Russia in prisoner swap | World news | The Guardian
Savchenko, a military pilot, volunteered to fight with a ground unit against pro-Moscow separatists who launched an insurrection in eastern Ukraine against Kiev’s pro-western government.

She was captured and put on trial in southern Russia, charged with complicity in the deaths of Russian journalists who were killed by artillery while covering the conflict.

A Russian court in March sentenced her to 22 years in jail. While in Russian jail, she was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament. She is widely seen in Ukraine as a symbol of resistance against Russia.

Feygin tweeted on Wednesday that Savchenko wasn’t guilty of any crime. She had nothing to do with the deaths of the two journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who were working for state TV.

Her release is a boost for Poroshenko, whom critics accuse of failing to tackle Ukraine’s endemic corruption or to confront entrenched oligarchic interests. In April Poroshenko, a multimillionaire businessman, appeared in the Panama Papers in connection with an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Opposition activists in Russia hailed the prisoner exchange. Dmitry Gudkov, the lone liberal opposition deputy in Russia’s parliament, argued that if Russia had exchanged Savchenko earlier, Alexandrov’s Ukrainian defense lawyer Yury Grabovsky might not have been murdered near Kiev in March.

“We wouldn’t have embarrassed ourselves before the whole world with the ‘trial’ of a deputy of the Rada and PACE. There wouldn’t have been another split in society over an artificial propaganda story,” Gudkov wrote on Facebook, referring to the fact that Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during her imprisonment.

“It’s a good thing both sides had enough political will for the exchange. People shouldn’t be hostages,” opposition PARNAS party member Andrei Pivovarov wrote on Twitter.

But not all Russian commentators greeted the reports as warmly. Pro-Kremlin analyst Dmitry Solonnikov told a local news site that Savchenko’s release would lead to a “strengthening of the anti-Russian wave in the EU, first in the media, then in politics.”

Ukrainian politicians were ecstatic with the reports Savchenko had been freed. MP Alyona Shkrum wrote on Twitter that Savchenko’s mother was complaining that she hadn’t had time to cook a pot of borscht for her daughter’s arrival.

Posted By Charles D'Alberto


Thursday, May 19, 2016

EgyptAir flight MS804 from Paris to Cairo disappears from radar – Charles D’Alberto

Charles D'Alberto
An EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo has disappeared from radar with 66 people on board, the airline says.

The Airbus A320 went missing over the eastern Mediterranean, soon after entering Egyptian airspace.

EgyptAir says it received a distress signal before the plane disappeared from radar.

There were 56 passengers – including three children – seven crew members and three security personnel on board Flight MS804, the airline said.

The airline said the passengers included 30 Egyptians, 15 French citizens, one Briton, two Iraqis, as well as people from Canada, Belgium, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, Chad and Portugal.
Flight MS804 left Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport at 23:09 local time on Wednesday (21:09 GMT) and was scheduled to arrive in the Egyptian capital soon after 03:00 local time on Thursday.

It was flying at 37,000ft (11,300m) over the eastern Mediterranean when contact was lost, at 02:45 Cairo time (00:45 GMT).

The Greek authorities joined Egyptian armed forces in the search operation.

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Earlier an airport official, quoted by Egypt’s state-run newspaper al-Ahram, said the last contact with the plane had been 10 minutes before it disappeared – and no distress signal had been sent.

But EgyptAir tweeted (in Arabic) that a distress signal was sent from the plane’s emergency devices.

Flightradar24 listed details of the plane’s journey on Wednesday which showed it had flown from Asmara, in Eritrea, to Cairo, then on to Tunis, in Tunisia, before heading, via Cairo, to Paris.

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Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has arrived at the airport in Cairo, along with the families of those on board, state-run Nile News TV reports.

Aviation analyst Alex Macheras told the BBC that Airbus A320s were regularly used for short-haul budget flights and had “an amazing safety record”.

In March, an EgyptAir plane was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. The attacker later surrendered and all hostages were released.

Last October, a Russian passenger plane flying from Sharm el-Sheikh crashed over the Sinai peninsula killing all 224 people on board. Officials in Moscow and Egypt later said the aircraft was brought down by an explosive device.

Islamic State militants said they had bombed the plane.

If anyone is concerned about relatives or friends following the disappearance of the flight, they can call this free number provided by EgyptAir: +202 259 89320.

Posted By Charles D'Alberto


Our thoughts & Prayers are with the passengers, crew and the families of EgyptAir Flight #MS804

Monday, May 9, 2016

Serbia to receive Mi-17B-5 helicopters from Russia soon - Charles D'Alberto

Charles D'Alberto

BELGRADE – Serbia expects to receive a shipment of Mi-17B-5 military transport helicopters from Russia soon, Serbian Defense Minister Zoran Djordjevic said in an exclusive interview with TASS.

“The Serbian army is trying to obtain modern hi-tech models of weapons and military hardware that will act as a considerable deterrence factor and will be able to give a reliable response if it is necessary to repel an aggression and defend our national interests,” the Serbian minister emphasized.

At the same time, Djordjevic noted that the Serbian army tried to preserve the maximum level of operational and functional capacities of the combat hardware, which it has at its disposal. “A considerable part of models of weapons and military hardware are either made in Russia or [the former] Soviet Union,” Djordjevic said.

“At the moment, we are planning to receive two Mi-17B-5 transport helicopters from Russia. That will contribute to the renovation of a considerable part of the Serbian Air Force fleet and the Serbian army’s Air Defense,” the Serbian defense minister said.

“We want to renovate and improve the Serbian army’s combat equipment. Besides, we want to show that we are a reliable partner in the creation of a regional center for repairing separate models of military hardware. Let’s wait and see if that will produce any concrete results,” Djordjevic concluded.

Posted By Charles D'Alberto


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Queen banned Obama’s fleet of helicopters from landing on Windsor Castle lawn - Charles D'Alberto

Charles D'Alberto

Her majesty called the US president’s bevy of choppers “over the top”, meaning the Secret Service had to rethink their plans to land about six aircraft in the 300-year-old gardens of her main residence during his tour of the UK this week.

The Queen put her foot down and said there was no chance his extensive security backup would be accompanying him to Windsor Castle.

She said only three helicopters, including the president’s personal aircraft Marine One, could land on the lawn when Mr Obama, 54, and his wife, Michelle, 52, came for dinner with the Queen and Prince Philip to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Her insistence came after the president’s helicopters damaged the grass when half a dozen of them landed during his last visit in 2011.

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The Queen’s security paled in comparison to Mr Obama’s extensive entourage

The engines’ heat scorched the grounds and the wheels left divots in one of the UK’s oldest lawns, planted during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 1700s.

One royal source told the Daily Star Sunday: “It was a write-off and the Queen was not amused.”
An insider said US aides refused to change their plans on security grounds but came around to the Queen’s wishes eventually.

They said: “Various US aides said that wouldn’t be possible.

“The President has a small army of Secret Service agents who follow him all over.
“They said they needed to be within reach of the president at all times.

“They also wanted guards posted inside the dining hall when he had lunch with the Queen.

“But Her Majesty refused to back down and said, ‘three helicopters only’.

“The Secret Service had to go away and think about their plan. The President’s officials were told that the Queen regarded Windsor Castle as her family home and the most important of all royal residences.

“They were told that the Queen was particularly sensitive to any potential damage to the castle and grounds.

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Charles D'Alberto
Prince Philip drove the Obamas and the Queen from the lawn to the castle

“Eventually the President’s aides accepted her wishes.

“She rarely imposes her will but when she does people listen – it just took the US Secret Service agents a little time to realise that.”

Yesterday, Obama took part in a question and answer session with young people at Westminster’s Royal Horticultural Halls where he thanked the Queen for lunch the previous day and said how “adorable” Prince George was when he went to Kensington Palace for dinner with Prince William, Kate and Prince Harry the evening before.

It came the day after he urged Britain to remain in the European Union (EU), prompting a backlash from British politicians saying he should stay out of it.

Upon the US head of state’s arrival last week, London’s airspace went into lockdown, with all drones and private aircraft banned from flying into the capital while his plane was airborne.
A fleet of US F-22 Raptor combat jets were on standby to shoot down any potential threat.
Obama will head to Germany and Saudi Arabia after his UK visit.

Posted By Charles D'Alberto


Friday, April 29, 2016

Avalanche fears over unauthorised Everest helicopter flights - Charles D'Alberto

Charles D'Alberto

Helicopter firms are carrying out unauthorised sightseeing flights over the upper reaches of Mount Everest, Nepalese officials say.

Sherpas have expressed concerns that vibrations caused by the helicopters could trigger avalanches.
Tourist flights are not allowed to places above Base Camp which is at an altitude of 5,364 metres (17,600ft).

But helicopter companies say they only overfly sights like the Khumbu Icefall and their flights are allowed.

There has been no expedition on Everest for the past two years because of a series of disasters.
Sixteen Sherpas died on their way to Camp One in an icefall in 2014. At least 18 climbers died at Base Camp after a major earthquake triggered a huge avalanche last year.

After the 2014 disaster, authorities moved the climbing route to the middle of the Khumbu Icefall.
It is a treacherous section that mountaineers must cross on their way up to the summit of Everest.

Climbing season

Sherpas are currently transporting expedition equipment to higher camps for the current climbing season.

“The sightseeing helicopters are hovering above the Khumbu Icefall and making things difficult for us,” said Pasang Kaji Sherpa, a mountain guide with a military expedition team now on Everest.
“We worry that the vibrations caused by helicopters can crack ice blocks and snow packs on mountains overlooking the Khumbu Icefall.

“There is a deep-seated fear among Sherpa porters that they may be hit by avalanches this year as well and these helicopters are increasing fears,” Pasang Kaji Sherpa added.

After the BBC started to investigate whether sightseeing helicopters were permitted to fly to places like the Khumbu Icefall, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) issued a circular to all airlines warning them not to conduct such flights.

“We have made it clear in the circular that sightseeing flights are simply not allowed in places higher than the base camp,” said Rajan Pokhrel, Deputy Director General of CAAN.

“Only rescue flights during emergencies are allowed in those areas and sometimes we allow special projects like skydiving when recommended by other government authorities.”

Mr Pokhrel said his office had also heard the Sherpas’ concerns.

Airline defence

However, airline officials say there is no such danger.

“We fly 2,340 feet from above the ground and maintain at least 1km distance from the mountains so there is no way the vibration can cause avalanche,” said Pabitra Karki, chairman of Airlines Operators Association Nepal (AOAN).

“We use the French-made Ecureil helicopters for sightseeing which are very light and we carry two to three passengers in each flight.”

AOAN officials say there are around half a dozen sightseeing flights per week during the climbing season.

But other sources at Base Camp said such flights were becoming more frequent.

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About 20 helicopters are operated by six companies in Nepal but only a handful of pilots are qualified to fly to high altitudes.

Alarm and concern

“For Sherpa climbers, especially those carrying equipment for expedition teams, helicopters flying overhead in higher areas is a mentally torturous experience,” says Phurba Namgyal Sherpa, general secretary of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association.

“The fragile snow and ice conditions could be disturbed at any time by the rotors of helicopters and that could spell disaster for us.

“This is an issue we have been discussing for quite some time now but we are not sure where to lodge the complaint.”

Scaling Mount Everest is the dream of many climbers who are prepared to pay a lot of money to reach the summit.

Aviation experts say part of the problem is how such flights are policed by the authorities.

Officials from CAAN admitted they were not on the ground to monitor such flights but relied on other government agencies based there.

“Just because we are not there does not mean we don’t get to know what happens up there,” Mr Pokhrel cautioned.

In addition, the Department of Tourism has allowed helicopters to transport ropes and other gear up to Camp One to fix the route, after expedition operators complained that the earthquake had made the Khumbu Icefall more difficult to cross.

“We fear that such a concession may be misused for more sightseeing and other commercial purposes and increase the risk of avalanche in the region,” said Phurba Namgyal Sherpa.

Posted By Charles D'Alberto


Helicopter carrying at least 13 people crashes near Bergen in Norway - Charles D'Alberto

Charles D'Alberto

Several people have been found dead after a helicopter crashed west of the Norwegian city of Bergen with 13 on board, local media report.

There were initial reports of people in the sea, but a rescue official told broadcaster NRK that there were no signs of any survivors.

The helicopter was “totally destroyed”. Photos from the scene show thick smoke coming from an area of rocky islets.

It was flying from the Gullfaks oil field to Bergen.

The western city is a centre for the North Sea oil and gas industry.

The helicopter, a Eurocopter 225, came down near the small island of Turoy, just west of the village of Solsvik.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing the helicopter’s rotary blade come loose and sheer off in a different direction.

Some wreckage was found on the island, and parts of the hull are in the sea, local media said.
All passengers on the helicopter were employees of the oil company Statoil, reports say.

Service company CHC Helicopter confirmed that there had been “an incident involving one of our aircraft in the Norwegian sector”.

Statoil has temporarily grounded all helicopters of the same type.

Posted By Charles D'Alberto