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Ukraine mulls martial law after Russia fires on vessels

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MOSCOW — Ukraine’s president demanded Monday that Russia immediately release Ukrainian sailors and ships seized in a standoff around Crimea that sharply escalated tensions between the two countries and drew international concern.

Ukrainian lawmakers were set to consider a presidential request for the introduction of martial law in the country on Monday following an incident in which Russian coast guard ships fired on Ukrainian navy vessels.

An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was also called for Monday. The European Union and NATO called for restraint from both sides.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said at a meeting of Ukraine’s national security council Monday that “we demand that (the ships and crews) are urgently turned over to the Ukrainian side” and called for a “de-escalation” of the crisis around Crimea.

The Ukrainian navy said six of its seamen were wounded when Russian coast guards opened fire on three Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait and then seized them late Sunday.

Russia’s Federal Security Service that is in charge of the coast guard said that three Ukrainian sailors were lightly injured and given medical assistance. It said the Ukrainian boats were towed to the nearby port of Kerch.

The two nations traded blame over the incident that further escalated tensions that have soared since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine said its vessels were heading to the Sea of Azov in line with international maritime rules, while Russia charged that they had failed to obtain permission to pass through the Kerch Strait separating Crimea from the Russian mainland.

The narrow strait is the only passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It’s spanned by a 19-kilometre (11.8-mile) bridge that Russia completed this year.

Dozens of far-right protesters burned tires outside the Russian consulate Monday in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The protest was organized by the National Corps party, which also called for a demonstration in front of Poroshenko’s office in the capital, Kyiv. The group, which is small but can put pressure on Ukraine’s leadership, argues Poroshenko isn’t aggressive enough against Russia.

Poroshenko chaired an emergency meeting of his Cabinet early Monday and asked parliament to introduce martial law in response to what he described as Russian aggression.

“We consider it as an act of aggression against our state and a very serious threat,” the president said. “Unfortunately, there are no ‘red lines’ for the Russian Federation.”

Russia, meanwhile, says Ukraine started it.

“Three Ukrainian ships which were involved in a provocation in Russian territorial waters have been delivered to the port of Kerch. The crews were obviously acting intentionally,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters. “As we understand it, this provocation and the complex of provocative actions have been planned ahead of time.”

Russia closed the Kerch Strait for sea traffic Sunday by positioning a tanker under the bridge spanning it. It reopened the route early Monday.

The seizure of the Ukrainian ships followed a tense situation in which the three Ukrainian vessels were manoeuvring near the Kerch Strait for hours shadowed by Russian coast guard boats.

The incident came after months of tensions and incidents in the Sea of Azov that involved inspections and seizures of ships.

While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation of Crimea.

___

Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, contributed to this report.

Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press












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National security officials to testify on Jan. 6 mistakes

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WASHINGTON — Federal national security officials are set to testify in the second Senate hearing about what went wrong on Jan. 6, facing questions about missed intelligence and botched efforts to quickly gather National Guard troops that day as a violent mob laid siege to the U.S. Capitol.

Senators are eager Wednesday to grill the officials from the Pentagon, the National Guard, and the Justice and Homeland Security departments about their preparations as supporters of then-President Donald Trump talked online, in some cases openly, about gathering in Washington and interrupting the electoral count.

At a hearing last week, officials who were in charge of security at the Capitol blamed each other as well as federal law enforcement for their own lack of preparation as hundreds of rioters descended on the building, easily breached the security perimeter and eventually broke into the Capitol itself. Five people died as a result of the rioting.

So far, lawmakers conducting investigations have focused on failed efforts to gather and share intelligence about the insurrectionists’ planning before Jan. 6 and on the deliberations among officials about whether and when to call National Guard troops to protect Congress. The officials at the hearing last week, including ousted Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, gave conflicting accounts of those negotiations. Robert Contee, the acting chief of police for the Metropolitan Police Department, told senators he was “stunned” over the delayed response and said Sund was pleading with Army officials to deploy National Guard troops as the rioting rapidly escalated.

Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, one of two Democratic senators who will preside over Wednesday’s hearing, said in an interview Tuesday that she believes every moment counted as the National Guard decision was delayed and police officers outside the Capitol were beaten and injured by the rioters.

“Any minute that we lost, I need to know why,” Klobuchar said.

The hearing comes as thousands of National Guard troops are still patrolling the fenced-in Capitol and as multiple committees across Congress are launching investigations into mistakes made on Jan. 6. The probes are largely focused on security missteps and the origins of the extremism that led hundreds of Trump’s supporters to break through the doors and windows of the Capitol, hunt for lawmakers and temporarily stop the counting of electoral votes. Congress has, for now, abandoned any examination of Trump’s role in the attack after the Senate acquitted him last month of inciting the riot by telling the supporters that morning to “fight like hell” to overturn his defeat.

As the Senate hears from the federal officials, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman will testify before a House panel that is also looking into how security failed. In a hearing last week before the same subcommittee, she conceded there were multiple levels of failures but denied that law enforcement failed to take seriously warnings of violence before the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In the Senate, Klobuchar said there is particular interest in hearing from Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, who was on the phone with Sund and the Department of the Army as the rioters first broke into the building. Contee, the D.C. police chief, was also on the call and told senators that the Army was initially reluctant to send troops.

“While I certainly understand the importance of both planning and public perception — the factors cited by the staff on the call — these issues become secondary when you are watching your employees, vastly outnumbered by a mob, being physically assaulted,” Contee said. He said he had quickly deployed his own officers and he was “shocked” that the National Guard “could not — or would not — do the same.”

Contee said that Army staff said they were not refusing to send troops, but “did not like the optics of boots on the ground” at the Capitol.

Also testifying at the joint hearing of the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees are Robert Salesses of the Defence Department, Melissa Smislova of the Department of Homeland Security and Jill Sanborn of the FBI, all officials who oversee aspects of intelligence and security operations.

Lawmakers have grilled law enforcement officials about missed intelligence ahead of the attack, including a report from an FBI field office in Virginia that warned of online posts foreshadowing a “war” in Washington. Capitol Police leaders have said they were unaware of the report at the time, even though the FBI had forwarded it to the department.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the report was disseminated though the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, discussed at a command post in Washington and posted on an internet portal available to other law enforcement agencies.

Though the information was raw and unverified and appeared aspirational in nature, Wray said, it was specific and concerning enough that “the smartest thing to do, the most prudent thing to do, was just push it to the people who needed to get it.”

“We did communicate that information in a timely fashion to the Capitol Police and (Metropolitan Police Department) in not one, not two, but three different ways,” Wray said, though he added that since the violence that ensued was “not an acceptable result,” the FBI was looking into what it could have done differently.

Mary Clare Jalonick And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

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Trump’s cash plea could complicate GOP fundraising efforts

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ORLANDO, Fla. — “Trump needs you,” one fundraising email implored.

“President Trump’s Legacy is in your hands,” another pleaded.

Others advertised “Miss Me Yet?” T-shirts featuring Donald Trump’s smiling face.

While some Republicans grapple with how fiercely to embrace the former president, the organizations charged with raising money for the party are going all in. The Republican National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign arms are eager to cash in on Trump’s lure with small donors ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when the GOP hopes to regain control of at least one chamber of Congress.

But there’s a problem: Trump himself. In his first speech since leaving office, the former president encouraged loyalists to give directly to him, essentially bypassing the traditional groups that raise money for GOP candidates.

“There’s only one way to contribute to our efforts to elect ‘America First’ Republican conservatives and, in turn, to make America great again,” Trump said Sunday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida. “And that’s through Save America PAC and donaldjtrump.com.”

The comment was particularly notable because Trump is generally loath to ask for money in person. It amounts to the latest salvo in the battle to shape the future of the GOP, with Trump making clear that he holds no allegiance to the party’s traditional fundraising operation as he tries to consolidate power.

That could help him add to an already commanding war chest, aiding his effort to influence the party. Save America has more than $80 million cash on hand, including $3 million raised after the CPAC speech, according to a person familiar with the total.

Some of that money could help Trump settle scores with incumbent members of Congress who have crossed him. In his Sunday speech, Trump read aloud the names of every Republican who voted against him and called for them to be defeated. He’s already endorsed a Republican challenger to GOP Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, who voted to impeach Trump over the U.S. Capitol riot.

“Trump’s call to give directly to him shows that the normal organs of the party … are going to have to fight for relevance in the 2022 cycle,” said Dan Eberhart, a longtime Republican donor who has given large sums to all three as well as to Trump’s campaign.

Bill Palatucci, a RNC member from New Jersey, called Trump’s comments “unwelcome” and “counterproductive” and voiced concern that the GOP would suffer further losses, like Georgia’ Senate runoff elections in January, if they don’t work together.

“Listen it’s a free country. Anybody can form a federal PAC or a super PAC and there’s always lots of competition for dollars. But the crossing the line there is then to also tell people to not give to the important committees of the national party,” said Palatucci. “There’s got to be a willingness on the former president to look beyond his own self-interest.”

The RNC and spokespeople for the House and Senate campaign committees declined to comment. But others sought to downplay the apparent tensions. They noted, for instance, that Trump is scheduled to speak at the RNC’s spring donor retreat — a major fundraising source — in April in Palm Beach.

And Trump told the party’s chair, Ronna McDaniel, in recent days that he wants to continue fundraising for the RNC, according to a person briefed on the conversation who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations.

Before making his money pitch on Sunday, Trump’s team quietly updated its fundraising filings. They converted his Save America leadership PAC to an entity that can also support other candidates, and turned his main Donald J. Trump for President campaign committee into the Make America Great Again, or MAGAPac. Money raised through Trump’s website now goes to Save America JFC, a joint fundraising agreement between the two.

While Trump left office as a deeply unpopular figure, he remains a powerful draw for small-dollar, grassroots donors, a reality that has been abundantly clear in fundraising appeals over the last week.

Over the course of a single hour last Thursday, the RNC, both GOP congressional campaign committees and the Republican State Leadership Committee, which tries to elect Republicans to state office, blasted supporters with urgent fundraising appeals that included urgent references to Trump.

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee warned this week that its “limited edition” T-shirts featuring Trump were almost sold out.

Regardless of Trump’s next move, the GOP is unlikely to remove him from its sales pitch anytime soon.

“Our digital fundraising strategy is simple: raise as much money as possible,” said Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the RSLC.

Jill Colvin, The Associated Press

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