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Ukraine corruption scandal ousts top officials during war

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By Andrew Meldrum in Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Several senior Ukrainian officials, including five front-line governors, lost their jobs Tuesday in a corruption scandal plaguing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government as it grapples with the nearly 11-month-old Russian invasion.

Ukraine’s biggest government shake-up since the war began came as Poland formally requested permission from Germany to transfer a modest number of its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. Germany builds the high-tech armor, and Warsaw needs Berlin’s permission to send them to a non-NATO country.

Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft, and the new allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight against Moscow.

Officials in several countries, including the United States, have demanded more accountability for the aid, given Ukraine’s rampant corruption. While Zelenskyy and his aides portray the resignations and firings as proof of their efforts to crack down on graft, the wartime scandal could play into Moscow’s political attacks on the leadership in Kyiv.

The shake-up even touched Zelenskyy’s office. Its deputy head, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, prominent for his frequent battlefield updates, quit as the president pledged to address allegations of graft — including some related to military spending — that embarrassed authorities and could slow Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO.

Tymoshenko asked to be relieved of his duties, according to an online decree signed by Zelenskyy and Tymoshenko’s own social media posts. Neither cited a reason for the resignation.

Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov also resigned, local media reported, alleging his departure was linked to a scandal involving the purchase of food for Ukraine’s armed forces. Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko also quit.

In all, four deputy ministers and five governors of provinces on the war’s front line were set to leave their posts, the country’s cabinet secretary said on the Telegram messaging app.

Authorities did not announce any criminal charges against the outgoing officials. There was no immediate explanation.

The departures thinned government ranks already diminished by the deaths of Ukraine’s interior minister, who oversaw Ukraine’s police and emergency services, and others in the ministry’s leadership in a helicopter crash last week.

Tymoshenko joined the presidential office in 2019, after working on Zelenskyy’s media and creative content strategy during his presidential campaign.

He was under investigation in connection with his personal use of luxury cars and was among officials a National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine investigator linked in September to the embezzlement of humanitarian aid worth more than $7 million earmarked for the southern Zaporizhzhia region. He has denied all the allegations.

On Sunday, a deputy minister at the infrastructure ministry, Vasyl Lozynsky, was fired for alleged participation in a network embezzling budget funds. Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency detained him while he was receiving a $400,000 bribe for helping to fix contracts for restoring facilities battered by Russian missile strikes, according to Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov.

In his nightly video address Sunday, Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s focus on the Russian invasion would not stop his government from tackling corruption, pledging: “There will be no return to what used to be in the past.”

Analysts say his message was that corruption won’t be tolerated.

“It’s very hard to save the country when there’s a lot of corruption,” Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, a nonprofit organization that fights corruption, told The Associated Press.

Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AP the shake-up was “intended to remind officials of the entire (power) vertical that the authorities plan to continue to fight corruption in Ukraine, especially during the war, when literally everything in the country is in short supply.”

Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta Center independent think tank, said Ukrainian authorities and Western officials couldn’t simply “turn a blind eye on latest scandals.” He said the corruption involved supplies for the army so the shake-up was “intended to calm Western partners and show Brussels and Washington that their aid is being used effectively.”

Transparency International, in its 2021 report on worldwide corruption, ranked Ukraine 122 out of 180 countries, with 180 representing the most corrupt. Russia ranked 136.

Entrenched corruption long has made foreign investors and governments wary of doing business with Ukraine. Allegations by Ukraine’s journalists and nonprofits about corruption at high levels of government, in courts and in business have lingered under Zelenskyy, despite a proliferation of anti-corruption panels and measures, according to a U.S. State Department 2020 country report.

A major corruption scandal could endanger the tens of billions of dollars the U.S. and its allies are pouring into Ukraine to keep Ukraine’s fighters armed, civil servants paid and the lights on. It could risk sinking what so far has been bipartisan popular and political support for Ukraine from the United States.

“We welcome the quick action that President Zelenskyy is taking in this case, as well as the effective action of Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions, civil society, and media, to ensure effective monitoring and accountability of public procurement and to hold those in positions of public trust to account,” the White House National Security Council said in a statement. “We will continue to support Ukraine as it works to implement important anti-corruption reforms.”

Last June, the EU agreed to put Ukraine on a path toward membership in the bloc. In order to join, countries must meet economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.

Ukraine has applied to join NATO, too, but the military alliance is not about to offer an invitation, because of the country’s contested borders, defense establishment shortcomings and, in part, its corruption issues.

Meanwhile, the delivery of an expected 14 Leopard tanks from Poland appeared to be a foregone conclusion, with its timing the main outstanding question.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Sunday that Berlin wouldn’t seek to stop Poland providing the versatile tanks to Kyiv if it asked, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday the Poles — and other Western allies he didn’t identify — are already training Ukrainian soldiers in Poland on the Leopards.

German officials confirmed to the dpa news agency they had received the Polish application and said it would be assessed “with due urgency.”

Also on Tuesday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto suggested his country may consider joining NATO without neighboring Sweden if Turkey continues to block their joint bid to enter the military alliance. Although he later backpedaled, his comments were the first time a leading government official in either Nordic country appeared to raise doubts about becoming NATO members together while the alliance is seeking to present a united front to counter Russia’s invasion.

Sweden and Finland rushed to apply for NATO membership following Moscow’s invasion, abandoning long-standing nonalignment policy. Their accession needs the approval of all existing NATO members, including Turkey, which has so far blocked the expansion, saying Sweden in particular needs to crack down on exiled Kurdish militants and their sympathizers.

In other developments:

Ukraine’s presidential office said at least five civilians were killed and seven others were wounded over the previous 24 hours. One Russian rocket hit a school in eastern Ukraine, killing one person, Donetsk region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Russian forces shelled nine towns and villages in the northern Sumy region, which borders Russia, hitting a house where a woman was killed and three other people were wounded, Gov. Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said on Telegram.

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Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed.

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

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A real zoodunit: Monkeys found but mystery deepens in Dallas

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By Jamie Stengle in Dallas

DALLAS (AP) — Two monkeys taken from the Dallas Zoo were found Tuesday in an abandoned home after going missing the day before from their enclosure, which had been cut. But no arrests have been made, deepening the mystery at the zoo that has included other cut fences, the escape of a small leopard and the suspicious death of an endangered vulture.

Dallas police said they found the two emperor tamarin monkeys after getting a tip that they could be in an abandoned home in Lancaster, located just south of the zoo. The animals were located, safe, in a closet, and then returned to zoo for veterinary evaluation.

Police said earlier Tuesday that they were still working to determine whether or not the incidents over the last few weeks are related.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, officials were investigating after 12 squirrel monkeys were taken from a zoo there on Sunday and considering whether there could be a connection.

Here’s what is known so far about the incidents:

WHAT HAS HAPPENED AT THE DALLAS ZOO?

The zoo closed Jan. 13 after workers arriving that morning found that the clouded leopard, named Nova, was missing. After a search that included police, the leopard weighing 20-25 pounds (9-11 kilograms) was found later that day near her habitat.

Police said a cutting tool was intentionally used to make the opening in her enclosure. A similar gash also was found in an enclosure for langur monkeys, though none got out or appeared harmed, police said.

On Jan. 21, an endangered lappet-faced vulture named Pin was found dead by arriving workers. Gregg Hudson, the zoo’s president and CEO, called the death “very suspicious” and said the vulture had “a wound,” but declined to give further details.

Hudson said in a news conference following Pin’s death that the vulture enclosure didn’t appear to be tampered with.

On Monday police said the two emperor tamarin monkeys — which have long whiskers that look like a mustache — were believed to have been taken after someone cut an opening in their enclosure.

The following day police released a photo and video of a man they said they wanted to talk to about the monkeys. The photo shows a man eating Doritos chips while walking, and in the video clip he is seen walking down a path.

WHAT COULD BE THE MOTIVE IN TAKING THE MONKEYS?

Lynn Cuny, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in Kendalia, Texas, said she wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out the monkeys were taken to be sold. Depending on the buyer, she said, a monkey like those could be sold for “several thousands” of dollars.

“Primates are high-dollar animals in the wildlife pet trade in this country,” Cuny said. “Everybody that wants one wants one for all the wrong reasons — there’s never any good reason to have any wild animal as a pet.”

She said there were a variety of ways the taken monkeys could have been in danger, from an improper diet to exposure to cold. Temperatures in Dallas dipped into the 20s on Tuesday during a winter storm.

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE VULTURE?

Pin’s death has been hard on the staff, a zoo official said.

The vulture was “a beloved member of the bird department,” according to Harrison Edell, the zoo’s executive vice president for animal care and conservation.

Speaking at a news conference, Edell said Pin was at least 35 years old and had been at the zoo for 33 years. “A lot of our teams have worked closely with him for all of that time,” Edell said.

Pin, one of four lappet-faced vultures at the zoo, was said to have sired 11 offspring, and his first grandchild hatched in early 2020.

Edell said Pin’s death was not only a personal loss but also a loss for the species, which “could potentially go extinct in our lifetime.”

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT SECURITY?

Hudson, the zoo’s CEO, said in a news conference following Pin’s death that normal operating procedures included over 100 cameras to monitor public, staff and exhibit areas, and that number had been increased. Overnight presence of security and staff was also raised.

Where possible, he said, zoo officials limited the ability of animals to go outside overnight.

After Nova went missing, officials said they had reviewed surveillance video but not what it showed.

The zoo was closed Tuesday and Wednesday due to the storm.

WHAT HAPPENED IN LOUISIANA?

The 12 squirrel monkeys were discovered missing Sunday from their enclosure at a zoo in the state’s southeast.

Their habitat at Zoosiana in Broussard, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Baton Rouge, had been “compromised” and some damage was done to get in, city Police Chief Vance Olivier said Tuesday. He declined to provide further details on the damage, citing the ongoing investigation.

He said police did not have any suspects yet but were still searching through video files.

Zoosiana said in a Facebook post that the remaining monkeys have been assessed and appear unharmed.

HAVE THERE BEEN OTHER INCIDENTS BEFORE AT THE DALLAS ZOO?

In 2004, a 340-pound (154-kilogram) gorilla named Jabari jumped over a wall and went on a 40-minute rampage that injured three people before police shot and killed the animal.

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Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.

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‘Hands off Africa!’: Pope blasts foreign plundering of Congo

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By Nicole Winfield, Jean-yves Kamale And Christina Malkia in Kinshasa

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world’s attention on their forgotten plight.

Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.

“The pope is 86 years old but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” said Sultan Ntambwe, a bank agent in his 30s, as he waited for Francis’ arrival in a scene reminiscent of some of Francis’ earlier trips to similarly heavily Catholic countries.

Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today’s multinational extraction industries and the neighboring countries interfering in Congo’s affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s national palace.

Calling Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth a “diamond of creation,” Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.

“Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” said history’s first Latin American pope, who has long railed at how wealthy countries have exploited the resources of poorer ones for their own profit.

The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee problems, which were still so serious on Tuesday that he couldn’t stand to greet journalists in the plane heading to Kinshasa and forced him to use a wheelchair on the ground.

It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.

The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.

Instead of travelling there, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy on Wednesday. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.

Sylvie Mvita, a student in economics in Kinshasa, said the pope’s arrival would focus the world’s attention and television cameras on Congo and the fighting in the east to show how its suffering has been forgotten by the rest of the world.

“This will allow the world to discover the atrocities of which our brothers in the east of the country are victims. And maybe for once, the little humanity that remains in some people will cause an awakening and the international community will not only be interested in what is happening in Ukraine but also in what is happening in this country,” she said.

President Felix Tshisekedi voiced a similar line in his speech to the pope, accusing the international community of forgetting about Congo and of its complicit “inaction and silence” about the atrocities occurring in the east.

“In addition to armed groups, foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government,” he said.

Rwanda has been accused of — and has repeatedly denied — backing the M23 rebels operating in Congo.

Francis’ tough words at the start set the tone for the trip, in which the pontiff is aiming to bring a message of peace, a warning to the international community to not look the other way and a recognition that Africa is the future of the Catholic Church.

The continent is one of the only places on Earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in terms of practicing faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

And Congo stands out as the African country with most Catholics hands down: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians — 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.

That makes Francis’ trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as the Jesuit pope seeks to reshape the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls,” where all are welcome, poor people have a special pride of place and rivals are urged to make peace.

Aid groups had hoped Francis’ six-day visit would shine a spotlight on the forgotten conflicts of Congo and South Sudan and their soaring humanitarian costs, and rekindle international attention amid donor fatigue that has set in due to new aid priorities in Ukraine.

Francis answered their call, pointing the finger at the role colonial powers such as Belgium played in the exploitation of Congo until the country, which is 80 times the size of Belgium, gained its independence in 1960, and neighboring countries are playing today.

Francis didn’t identify Belgium or any neighboring country by name, but he spared no word of condemnation, quoting Tshisekedi as saying there was a “forgotten genocide” under way.

“The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis said. “May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”

“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” he said.

At the same time, he urged Congolese authorities to work for the common good and not tribal, ethnic or personal interests; and put an end to child labor and invest in education so that “the most precious diamonds” of Congo can shine brightly.

Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis’ biggest Masses ever.

Banners emblazoned with the pope’s image carried messages including “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa welcomes you with joy.”

Some women wore colorful dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric featuring images of Francis, the Virgin Mary or the Vatican keys, in a celebratory sign of welcome.

Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa’s airport before the pope’s arrival on Tuesday.

“He has come like a pilgrim sent by God,” Mopina said. “His blessing will give us peace in our hearts.”

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Christina Malkia in Kinshasa, and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

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