DDMA Headline Animator

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Freed Ukrainian pilot gets hero's welcome on return to Kiev

May 25, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — During the nearly two years that she was imprisoned in Russia, Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko became a national hero in absentia, lauded for her flinty defiance. On Wednesday she made a celebrated return to the country still embroiled in a fight against Moscow-backed separatists.

Savchenko, who was captured by rebels in June 2014 and then resurfaced in Russian custody, was convicted in March and sentenced to 22 years in prison for complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists. Prosecutors alleged she was acting as a spotter for mortar fire that killed them.

Savchenko was released after a pardon from President Vladimir Putin, which he said he made on humanitarian grounds at the urging of the journalists' relatives. In turn, Ukraine on Wednesday released two Russians who had been convicted of waging war in eastern Ukraine, where separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since April 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 9,300 people.

Savchenko's case became a celebrated cause at home. Ukrainians admired her unwavering antagonism toward Russian authorities, whom she denounced in court and insulted by raising her middle finger, and they worried about her health as she called several hunger strikes.

Her case also attracted wide international attention, with Western leaders including President Barack Obama calling for her release. But if the release of Savchenko warmed Ukrainians' hearts, it could also serve as a reminder of how intractable the eastern conflict may seem. Cease-fire violations have been reported almost daily in recent months and negotiations on implementing other elements of the Minsk cease-fire agreement show only fitful progress.

Savchenko was elected to Ukraine's Parliament while locked up in Russia and a poster with her picture has adorned the rostrum there for months. That could give her substantial symbolic power if she enters politics full-time. Dissatisfaction with President Petro Poroshenko and the government is strong as the eastern fighting persists and the country wallows in endemic corruption.

If she would stand up and challenge Poroshenko and the government, that could serve Russia's interests by making Ukraine's political stresses even more fraught. Keeping Savchenko in custody clearly had become a liability for the Kremlin, drawing continued international attention to the conflict which has corroded Russia's image. Although Russia persistently denies military involvement, Western sanctions over the conflict have dealt a blow to Russia's economy.

Putin, however, would have looked weak if he had backtracked on her case and could only release her in a swap once she had been convicted. Once her trial and that of the captured Russians had run their course, Putin and Poroshenko made a deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday expressed satisfaction with the release of Savchenko and Ukraine's decision to release the two Russians. Savchenko's release "after a long ordeal that included solitary confinement, is an important part of fulfilling Russia's commitments under the Minsk agreements" on calling a cease-fire in the conflict, he said in a statement.

Putin, at a meeting with the journalists' relatives, expressed "hope that such decisions, driven by humanity, will help to alleviate the stand-off in the conflict zone and help to avoid such terrible and pointless losses."

The two Russians, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were also freed on Wednesday, and Russian state television showed them being greeted at a Moscow airport by their wives. The two were captured last year. They acknowledged being Russian officers, but the Russian Defense Ministry, which has denied sending troops to Ukraine, claimed they had resigned from active duty. They were tried in a Kiev court, which sentenced them to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko sent his plane to pick up Savchenko in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia and bring her home to Kiev, where she received a hero's welcome. "Thank you everyone for fighting for me!" she told a scrum of journalists at Kiev's Boryspil Airport. "You fought for everyone behind bars. Politicians would have kept silent if people had been silent. I would like to say thank you to everyone who wished me well: I have survived because of you."

Savchenko, a professional air force officer, was fighting with a Ukrainian volunteer battalion against Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine when she was captured in the summer of 2014. After she surfaced on the other side of the border, Moscow claimed she had escaped from the separatists and was caught in Russia, while she claimed she was abducted and smuggled into Russia.

In giving her a state award on Wednesday, Poroshenko said she had become "a symbol of pride and steadfastness." Savchenko has skirted questions about her political ambitions and didn't mention it upon arrival on Wednesday, but Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who leads Savchenko's party told reporters Savchenko wants to start working right now.

"She asked me: 'Where do I need to be, where do I go to start working,'" Tymoshenko said. "A strong leader has come back home, that's for sure." But Savchenko hinted Wednesday that physical fighting may be more important to her than political battles.

"I would like to apologize that I am still alive. But I'm ready to go and fight for Ukraine today," she said, standing next to Poroshenko.

Nataliya Vasilyeva, Lynn Berry and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Ukrainian pilot returns home as unrivalled national hero

May 25, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — When war broke out in eastern Ukraine, pilot Nadezhda Savchenko left her hometown to join the fight against Russia-backed separatists. Nearly two years after she was captured, then tried and convicted in Russia, she returned home to a rapturous welcome in Kiev.

Over the past two years, Savchenko became both Ukraine's national hero and Russia's best-known prisoner. Western leaders and diplomats including President Barack Obama called for her release, graffiti supporting her sprouted up and children made drawings romanticizing her image.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke about her case on nearly every trip abroad. When she arrived at a Kiev airport on Wednesday after being swapped for two Russian servicemen who had been imprisoned in Ukraine, a throng of journalists and well-wishers converged on her.

"Step back if you want me to say anything. I have spent two years in a small cell," snapped Savchenko, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Ukraine's national trident. Savchenko, 35, had an illustrious career in the armed forces including a stint as Ukraine's only female soldier in the peacekeeping forces in Iraq. She graduated from a prestigious air force school in 2009, which until then had been open only to men. But when the war started in April 2014 Savchenko, retired and went to the east to join the Aidar volunteer battalion.

She was captured by rebels in June 2014 amid intense fighting in the Luhansk region. After her capture, which the rebels documented and filmed, she disappeared and then resurfaced in Russian custody. Russian authorities said Savchenko crossed into Russia voluntarily and illegally, disguised as a refugee. But Savchenko says the rebels who captured her spirited her across the border and handed her over.

Russian state media used Savchenko as a poster child for alleged Ukrainian atrocities in the east. Even though there didn't seem to be any solid evidence to prove her involvement in any civilian deaths in the east, prosecutors launched a case charging that she had been a spotter who called in coordinates for a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists.

At her first public appearance in Russia, Savchenko defiantly said she didn't recognize the authority of the Russian court and prosecutors. She went on several hunger strikes before and during her trial.

Savchenko often appeared in court in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt or in blouses with the Ukrainian coat of arms or other national symbols. Despite the long incarceration, Savchenko has never complained about bad health or prison conditions, unlike her lawyers, but instead focused on using her public appearances as a chance to condemn Russian interference in Ukraine.

The defiance with which the pilot carried herself throughout the detention and the nine-month trial, calling prosecutors names and singing the Ukrainian anthem, turned her in an unrivalled national hero. A poster with her picture and a call for her release has adorned the rostrum at the Ukrainian parliament for months.

In the autumn after her capture, Savchenko was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament and appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Ukrainian government insisted from the start that Savchenko was a prisoner of war and should be immediately released. That didn't happen because Moscow argued that Savchenko was a dangerous criminal.

While approval ratings plummeted for many Ukrainian politicians who rose to prominence in the 2013-2014 protest movement which ultimately forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country, Savchenko's imprisonment became a universal cause for Ukrainians to rally around. The party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko enlisted Savchenko to top their ballot at the 2014 parliamentary election with analysts saying Savchenko's name was a big draw for voters.

"For the whole world and Ukraine, Nadiya embodies the might of Ukraine, strength, a resistance to occupying forces and the immorality which has unfortunately flooded politics," Tymoshenko said Wednesday.

Savchenko has skirted questions about her political ambitions and didn't mention it upon arrival on Wednesday, but Tymoshenko told reporters Savchenko wants to start working right now. "She asked me: 'Where do I need to be, where do I go to start working,'" Tymoshenko told reporters. "A strong leader has come back home, that's for sure."

Orbita, a ghost of Chernobyl in the heart of Ukraine

By Yulia Silina
Orbita, Ukraine (AFP)
May 20, 2016

Missing from maps, a ghost town hides in the pine forests of central Ukraine, abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster but now filling with families fleeing the pro-Russian eastern separatist war.

Orbita, a town whose existence was never registered by the Soviet authorities, was meant to house 20,000 workers at a nuclear power plant whose construction was abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986.

The road through the woods that leads to the site is dilapidated, the sign marking the town's entrance covered with rust, but two small playgrounds next to the abandoned buildings are clean and tidy.

Alina, a blonde 10-year-old with a grin and few worries on her mind, is playing next to her grandfather Vladimir Limarchenko, a man who has lived through many hard times.

Her family left their home in the former Soviet republic's industrial heartland almost as soon as the fighting erupted two years ago, in a conflict which has since killed more than 9,300 people and forced 1.7 million from their homes.

"We did not know where to go. We just took a train to central Ukraine, where our relatives live. And by chance our fellow traveler at the station told us about Orbita," said Limarchenko, who worked as a mechanic before retiring.

His new neighbor Vasiliy came to Orbita from the pro-Russian separatist city of Lugansk a few months ago and is now renovating a damp apartment in a five-storey building that stood empty for many years.

"My home was seized by the rebels so I have nowhere to return to. Life is very expensive everywhere, but here I took an apartment on credit for a very low price," said the 36-year-old, who lives on a disability pension.

"It is better to live in the forest than under fire," he added.

- Abandoned lives -

Eight families from various parts of the war-scarred east have relocated to Orbita, attracted by its cheap prices and calm.

It costs less than $1,500 (1,300 euros) to buy one of the Soviet-era apartments, a pittance compared to the average $40,000 that people pay in the capital Kiev.

Orbita's tale is tightly intertwined with that of Chernobyl, whose explosion spewed radiation across nearly three-quarters of Europe and left several thousand people dead or dying.

Plans for the town were initially drafted in 1970, the year ground was broken for the Chygyryn nuclear power plant, whose construction was never completed.

Authorities of then-Soviet Ukraine planned to make Orbita the home of engineers from the plant -- in what was intended to be the equivalent of Pripyat, a city of 48,000 built three kilometers (two miles) from Chernobyl.

In the 1980s, two nine-storey and two five-storey apartment buildings, a department store and all the necessary infrastructure were built.

But the disaster at Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident, meant plans to complete the Chygyryn plant were quickly abandoned and because the Communist party had not yet opened an outpost in the town, it was not considered to exist officially and was not included on maps of the region.

Residents of Orbita employed to make preparations for the opening of the power plant lost their jobs and the town was quickly deserted, becoming a silent monument to the shock and terror caused by Chernobyl that reverberated through corridors of power in the Kremlin and around the world.

"There has been no heating or drinkable water here for a very long time," Alina's grandfather said.

"We are similar to Chernobyl, except that there is no radiation. On the contrary -- we have clean forest air," he added.

- 'A post-apocalyptic movie' -

The town, which is proving a draw for the poor from other parts of Ukraine, is currently home to about 50 families who are living in the two five-storey apartment blocks.

Most are elderly, live without heating and gas and have to trek to a nearby village for water. They survive, for the most part, on meager pensions and vegetables grown in their gardens.

But their hardscrabble existence is not made any easier by another nuisance -- curious tourists who come to snap pictures of the peculiar town and who have decided to make it their home.

Kristina, a 19-year-old student from Uzhgorod, a city near Ukraine's western border with Slovakia, came with a group of friends looking for a thrill.

"We wanted to visit Chernobyl, but it is very expensive. You can get here for free and there is no radiation," she said.

"I was intrigued by the atmosphere of this ghost town," she admits.

"It is like being in a post-apocalyptic movie."

But Limarchenko is hardly impressed.

"Do we look like ghosts?" he asks glumly.

"The real ghost towns are now in the separatist east, in the places we came from."

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Orbita_a_ghost_of_Chernobyl_in_the_heart_of_Ukraine_999.html.

Fate of primeval forest in balance as Poland plans logging

May 21, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It is the last remaining relic of an ancient forest that stretched for millennia across the lowlands of Europe and Russia, a shadowy, mossy woodland where bison and lynx roam beneath towering oak trees up to 600 years old.

Conservationists believe the fate of the Bialowieza Forest, which straddles Poland and Belarus, is more threatened that at any time since the communist era due to a new Polish government plan for extensive logging in parts of the forest. The plan has pitted the government against environmentalists and many scientists, who are fighting to save the UNESCO world heritage site.

Seven environmental groups, including Greenpeace and WWF, have lodged a complaint with the European Commission hoping to prevent the largescale felling of trees, which is due to begin within days. Bialowieza has been declared a Natura 2000 site, meaning it is a protected area under European law. EU officials say they are working with the Polish authorities to ensure that any new interventions in the forest are in line with their regulations, but it's not yet clear what the result will be.

The preservation of Bialowieza is such a sensitive matter that IKEA, which relies on Polish timber for 25 percent of its global furniture production, vowed years ago not to buy any wood from Bialowieza.

"This forest is a Polish treasure but it is also the world's treasure, and we could lose it," said Katarzyna Kosciesza from ClientEarth, one of the groups that filed the complaint. "The logging would really threaten it."

The forest plan is one of many controversial changes that have come with the election last year of a conservative populist party, Law and Justice. The new authorities have been accused by the European Union and human rights groups of eroding democracy and the rule of law.

The party's powerful leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, says he's on a mission to remake the country from top to bottom in line with the party's conservative Catholic and patriotic ideology. Since taking power in November, Poland's government has moved quickly to push broad changes in everything from cultural institutions to horse breeding farms and forestry management.

The government argues they are fixing the country by removing the corrupt influences of former communists and pro-Europeans who have held power in recent years. In the case of Bialowieza, government officials are blaming their predecessors for financial losses from the strict limits on logging. The environment minister, Jan Szyszko, also faulted them for getting the UNESCO world heritage designation, which brings some international oversight.

About 35 percent of the forest on the Polish side includes a national park and reserves, strictly protected zones that the government does not plan to touch. Officials argue the planned logging is not harmful because it will take part only in "managed" parts of the forest that have already been subject to logging in the past. But environmentalists say the logging plan is so extensive it would inevitably lead to the destruction of old-growth areas.

About half of the forest is still considered pristine, meaning those areas have never faced significant intervention since the forest's formation some 8,000 to 9,000 years ago after the end of the last ice age. That has left it with a complex diversity of species unknown in the second-growth forests elsewhere in Europe's lowlands.

That so much has survived is thanks to past Polish and Lithuanian monarchs and Russian czars, who kept it as a royal hunting preserve. Only in the last 100 years has it begun to face logging and human encroachment.

Szyszko last week dismissed 32 of 39 scientific experts on the State Council for Nature Conservation after they criticized the logging plan. They have since been replaced by people who mainly come from the forestry and hunting sectors that favor greater wood extraction. They council's new leader, Wanda Olech-Piasecka, also supports limited commercial hunting of bison, an endangered species.

Szyszko said the new council "will work effectively for the use of natural resources for the benefit of man, which is consistent with the concept of sustainable development." The Environment Ministry argues the logging is needed to stop the spread of bark beetle, which has killed off 10 percent of the spruce trees in the park — 3 percent of the trees overall — in an outbreak that began in 2013.

However, scientists believe that is merely a pretext, and that what officials really want are the profits from felling such old-growth wood. Scientists and environmentalists who oppose the logging plan say removing the dead wood upsets the ecosystem. The dead spruces host thousands of other species, worms and insects and fungi, which then become food for birds, while hollow dying trunks create nesting spaces. Among those who rely on the dead spruces are the pygmy owl, the smallest owl species in Europe, and the three-toed woodpecker, which has a precarious existence in Bialowieza.

Thanks to the bark beetle outbreak, the numbers of the three-toed woodpecker have doubled or possibly tripled, said Rafal Kowalczyk, director of the Mammal Research Institute with the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Scientists fighting the logging say the death of some spruce trees is making way for an increase of other species like hornbeam and lime and is part of the forest's natural adaptation to climate change, as conditions grow warmer and drier. They also say that it would be necessary to kill 80 percent of infected trees simply to slow the outbreak, which is not logistically possible.

Kowalczyk says the bark beetle outbreaks, which have long been a part of the forest cycle, have never threatened its existence before and won't now. "This forest has been shaped for thousands of years by nature," Kowalczyk added. "It is really unique and we should not turn it into a managed forest. There are many other managed forests but this relic of an ancient forest, with its high diversity, shows us what forests looked like hundreds, even thousands, of years ago."

Greek authorities begin evacuation of Idomeni refugee camp

May 24, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities began an operation at dawn Tuesday to gradually evacuate the country's largest informal refugee camp of Idomeni on Macedonian border, blocking access to the area and sending in more than 400 riot police.

The government's spokesman for the refugee crisis, Giorgos Kyritsis, said Monday that police would not use force, and that the operation was expected to last about a week to 10 days. The camp, which sprung up on what began as an informal pedestrian border crossing for refugees and migrants heading north to Europe, is home to an estimated 8,400 people. Greek police and government authorities have said the residents will be moved gradually to newly completed, organized camps.

Journalists were barred from the camp, stopped at a police roadblock a few kilometers (miles) away on a highway junction leading to the nearby village of Idomeni. Twenty buses carrying various riot police units were seen heading to the area while a police helicopter observed from above.

More than 54,000 refugees and migrants have been trapped in financially struggling Greece since Balkan and European countries shut their land borders to a massive flow of people escaping war and poverty at home. The vast majority are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly a million people have passed through Greece, the vast majority arriving on islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

In March, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey meant to stem the flow and reduce the number of people undertaking the short but perilous sea crossing to Greece, where many have died after their overcrowded, unseaworthy boats sank. Under the deal, anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 18 faces deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

But few want to request asylum in the country, which has been struggling with a six-year deep financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering at around 24 percent. The government has been trying to persuade people staying in Idomeni, who include hundreds of families with young children, to leave the area and head to organized camps. This week it said its campaign of voluntary evacuations was already working, with police reporting that eight buses carrying about 400 people left Idomeni Sunday. Others took taxis heading to the country's main northern city of Thessaloniki or a nearby town of Polycastro.

On the eve of the evacuation operation, few at the camp appeared to welcome the news. "It's much better here than in the camps. That's what everybody who's been there said," Hind Al Mkawi, a 38-year-old refugee from Damascus, told the AP on Monday evening.

"I've heard (of the pending evacuation) too. It's not good ... because we've already been here for three months and we'll have to spend at least another six in the camps before relocation. It's a long time. We don't have money or work — what will we do?"

Abdo Rajab, a 22-year-old refugee from Raqqa in Syria, has spent the past three months in Idomeni, and is now considering paying smugglers to be taken to Germany clandestinely. "We hear that tomorrow we will all go to camps," he said. "I don't mind, but my aim is not reach the camps but to go Germany."

Cyprus election: Disillusioned public vote on new parliament

May 22, 2016

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cypriots are electing a new parliament Sunday amid public disillusionment with what many see as a discredited political establishment. Some 543,000 voters are eligible to cast ballots for 56 lawmakers, but opinion polls have shown a large undecided vote. Surveys have also indicated that a significant number of voters may turn to smaller parties instead of larger ones that have long dominated the domestic political scene.

As in previous elections, ongoing efforts to heal the country's ethnic division have been pronounced on the campaign trail. However, an economic crisis that saw many lose their jobs, coupled with a sense that corruption is widespread in politics amid recent revelations involving kickbacks on public works projects, have also figured prominently.

"That people are disillusioned is a given," voter Athena Georgiou told The Associated Press. "But my hope is that there will be a greater range of voices in the new parliament." Georgiou also said a move by the larger parties to double the electoral threshold to 3.6 percent — the percentage of votes needed for parties to gain a foothold in parliament — just a few months before the poll may have been perceived by voters as a bid to hoard votes and keep smaller parties out.

"People should vote to give those parties a slap," she said. The vote won't result in a change of government under Cyprus' presidential system. While parliament votes on legislation, ministers are chosen by the president after the presidential election. The next presidential election is set for February 2018.

Cyprus was split in 1974 into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south when Turkey invaded following a coup aiming at union with Greece. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have made significant headway after one year of talks, but difficulties remain...

Brussels police chief injured during anti-austerity clashes

May 24, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — The Brussels police chief was injured Tuesday during clashes at the end of a major anti-austerity demonstration attended by around 50,000 people in the center of the Belgian capital. Police chief Pierre Vandersmissen was treated for a head injury after he was hit with a stone in the back by a red-clad man and fell to the ground during rock throwing by a few dozen protesters after most of the marchers had already disbanded.

With a pepper spray canister, Vandersmissen had been chasing people who had attacked police even though he was not wearing extensive protective gear. He was taken to hospital and is expected to be released on Wednesday.

The demonstration was called to protest the center-right government's social and economic policies, which trade unions say cut deep into the foundations of Belgium's welfare state. In all, two police officials and eight protesters were injured in the clashes, during which police fired water cannons. About a dozen people were detained. It was a repeat of previous anti-austerity protests when the violence of dozens overshadowed the march of tens of thousands.

The government said in a statement "it condemns the violence committed by a minority" but added it took note of the large size of the demonstration demanding changes. Under the slogan "Our cup runs over" the main unions joined in the march, united in their opposition against moves to increase workers' flexibility at work, longer careers before pensions kick in and less pay under tougher conditions.

The trade unions say the center-right free market policies of Liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel over the past two years are costing an average family about 100 euros ($112) a month, while the promise of many extra jobs remains elusive. Instead the trade unions want the government to tackle tax evasion.

Socialist union leader Rudy De Leeuw denounced the attack on Vandersmissen and said that if the unidentified attacker turns out to be a member of the union, he will be expelled. "It is the most cowardly thing to do," he said.

Ten of thousands protest Belgian social, economic policies

May 24, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — Ten of thousands of demonstrators have marched through the center of Brussels to protest the center-right government's social and economic policies, which trade unions say cut deep into the foundations of Belgium's welfare state.

Under the slogan "Our cup runs over" the main unions joined in the march, united in their opposition against moves to increase workers' flexibility at work, longer careers before pensions kick in and less pay under tougher conditions.

The trade unions say the center-right free market policies of Liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel over the past two years are costing an average family some 100 euros ($112) a month, while the promise of many extra jobs remains elusive. Instead the trade unions want the government to tackle tax evasion.

Defeated right-wing Austrian president hopeful urges unity

May 24, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — Norbert Hofer, the right-winger who lost only narrowly to a pro-EU rival in Austrian presidential elections, has joined the winner in asking all citizens to try to overcome the ideological divisions that led to the close contest.

Speaking Tuesday, Hofer asked "Austrians to stick together." His opponent, Alexander Van Der Bellen, won the race with 50.3 percent of the votes, ompared with 49.7 percent for Hofer. Van der Bellen, a former Greens party leader who ran as an independent, is also looking to bridge the differences.

He quit the party after his win was announced, in a gesture underlining his intention to be a president for all and declared that both political camps together make "this beautiful Austria."

Left-leaning candidate wins Austria presidency in tight race

May 23, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — A pro-European Union candidate eked out a victory Monday over a right-wing, anti-migrant rival to become Austria's next president, in a tight contest viewed Europe-wide as a proxy fight pitting the continent's political center against its growingly strong populist and anti-establishment movements.

European mainstream parties joined Austrian supporters of Alexander Van der Bellen in congratulating him on his victory over Norbert Hofer, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declaring. "All of Europe is now breathing more easily."

But with less than a percentage point separating the two, Hofer's Freedom Party and its allies across Europe also had reason to celebrate what they cast as a major political surge by one of their own.

Hofer had been narrowly ahead of Van der Bellen, a Greens politician running as an independent, after the counting of votes directly cast on Sunday. But around 700,000 absentee ballots still remained to be tallied Monday, and those numbers swung the victory to Van der Bellen.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said Van der Bellen collected 50.3 percent of the votes compared with 49.7 percent for Hofer of the Freedom Party. Only a little more than 31,000 votes separated the two, out of more than 4.6 million ballots cast.

The results diminish the scenario that Austria's political landscape could immediately move away from its centrist political image through a new president who could oppose the government's EU-friendly policies and increase pressure for tighter migrant controls.

Still, the narrow margin for Van der Bellen is the latest indication that Europe's anti-establishment parties are gaining influence. Hofer announced his defeat shortly before the official announcement in a Facebook post thanking his backers for their support.

He acknowledged he is "naturally sad," adding: "I would have been happy to have cared for our wonderful country as federal president." His post said that the work of his supporters during the election is "not lost but an investment in the future."

With the results close, Herbert Kickl, secretary general of Hofer's party, said it might demand a recount "in case of significant signs of abuses" during the absentee vote count. A Freedom Party meeting was called for Tuesday.

Hofer's Freedom Party has exploited anti-EU sentiment and fear that Austria could be overrun by refugees to become the country's most popular political force. Van der Bellen was generally supported by pro-European Union Austrians favoring humane immigration policies and others opposed to the right.

Despite pledges by both candidates to be the president of all Austrians, the split vote revealed unprecedented polarization over which direction the nation should now take, particularly over migration and the EU's future. Van der Bellen sought to smooth over the differences in post-result comments.

"We're equals," the 72-year old economist told reporters. It's two halves that define Austria ... and together we make this beautiful Austria." But one thing united Hofer and Van der Bellen despite their ideological differences. Both were protest candidates, mirroring the depth of Austrian dissatisfaction with the status quo. Contenders for the Social Democrats and the centrist People's Party — the two parties that form the government coalition — were eliminated in last month's first round of voting.

Those parties have dominated Austrian politics since the end of World War II and winners of all previous presidential elections since then have been backed by one of the two. Hofer's strong showing reflects the growth of support for anti-establishment parties across the continent to the detriment of the political middle. Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, a Social Democrat, described it as "a continuation of a trend."

"People are dissatisfied with the traditional, standard political parties," he said on arrival at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels. "I really believe it's time for us to reflect upon it because we must be doing something wrong."

In a tweet reflecting a collective sigh of European establishment relief, Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky of the centrist ANO party hailed Van der Bellen's "narrow but for Europe important victory." German President Joachim Gauck described Van der Bellen as a "convinced European" who wants to work for a "strong, steady, and in the long run stronger European Union."

Europe's right, meanwhile, praised Hofer's close finish as a milestone on the path of international dominance for the right. France's National Front offered "warmest congratulations," adding "This historic performance certainly ensures future success for all patriotic movements, in Austria and elsewhere in the world."

Comments from Austria's foreign minister before the final tally was announced showed the government bracing for the worst in terms of international reaction had Hofer won. President Kurt Waldheim, who was backed by the centrist People's Party, already was boycotted by most of the world decades ago after revelations that he served in a German unit linked to atrocities in World War II. In Brussels, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz appealed "to everyone to respect the results, totally independently from ... whether they are happy with it or not, because this was a democratic Austrian election."

Hofer as president may have been unwelcome in some European capitals as governments there try to keep their populist Euroskeptic parties in check. And the Freedom Party's anti-Muslim campaigning also could have led to Mideast governments avoiding him.

Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Karel Janicek in Prague, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and David Rising, Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin, contributed to this report.

Absentee ballot count to decide Austrian election

May 22, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — With all direct ballots counted in Austria's presidential election, a right-wing politician is in a neck-to-neck race with a challenger whose views stand in direct opposition to his rival's anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic message.

Both right-winger Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen, a Greens politician running as an independent, each have 50 percent support Sunday, with direct votes tallied and absentee votes to be counted by Monday. With 4.48 million direct votes cast, the nearly 900,000 absentee ballots issued will likely make them the likely vote decider.

Candidates backed by the dominant Social Democratic and centrist People's Party were eliminated in last month's first round, which means neither party would hold the presidency for the first time since the end of the war. That reflects disillusionment with the status quo

Austria's next president could be a right-wing Eurosceptic

May 22, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — For the first time since World War II, a right-wing politician could win Sunday's election for the Austrian presidency as established parties that have dominated postwar politics watch from the sidelines.

Candidates backed by the dominant Social Democratic and centrist People's Party were eliminated in last month's first round, which means neither will become president for the first time since the end of the war.

That reflects deep disillusionment with the political status quo and their approach to the migrant crisis and other issues. As voting got underway Sunday, the contest was too close to call between Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Eurosceptic Freedom Party and Greens Party politician Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running as an independent.

Both men drew clear lines between themselves and their rival as they went into Sunday's race. At his final rally Friday, Van der Bellen said he was for "an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria" — an indirect contrast to what Hofer is offering. Hofer, in turn, used his last pre-election gathering to deliver a message with anti-Muslim overtones.

"To those in Austria who go to war for the Islamic State or rape women - I say to those people: 'This is not your home,'" he told a cheering crowd. The elections are reverberating beyond Austria's borders, with a Hofer win being viewed by European parties of all political stripes as evidence of a further advance of populist Eurosceptic parties at the expense of the establishment.

In Austria, such a result could upend decades of business-as-usual politics, with both men serving notice they are not satisfied with the ceremonial role most predecessors have settled for. Van der Bellen says he would not swear in a Freedom Party chancellor even if that party wins the next elections, scheduled within the next two years. Hofer has threatened to dismiss Austria's government coalition of the Social Democrats and the People's Party if it fails to heed his repeated admonitions to do a better job — and is casting himself as the final arbiter of how the government is performing.

Political isolation for Austria could also be in the offing. Hofer as president is unlikely to be welcomed in most European capitals as governments there try to keep their populist Eurosceptic parties in check. And the Freedom Party's anti-Muslim campaigning also could result in Mideast governments avoiding him.

It would not be a first for Austria. President Kurt Waldheim, who was backed by the centrist People's Party, was boycotted internationally decades ago after revelations that he served in a German unit linked to atrocities in World War II.

Philipp Jenne in Vienna also contributed.

Potential Habitats for Early Life on Mars

San Francisco CA (SPX)
May 25, 2016

San Francisco CA (SPX) May 25, 2016 Recently discovered evidence of carbonates beneath the surface of Mars points to a warmer and wetter environment in that planet's past. The presence of liquid water could have fostered the emergence of life.

A new study by James Wray at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Janice Bishop of the SETI Institute, as well as other collaborators, has found evidence for widespread buried deposits of iron- and calcium-rich Martian carbonates, which suggests a wetter past for the Red Planet.

"Identification of these ancient carbonates and clays on Mars represents a window into history when the climate on Mars was very different from the cold and dry desert of today," notes Bishop.

The fate of water on Mars has been energetically debated by scientists because the planet is currently dry and cold, in contrast to the widespread fluvial features that etch much of its surface. Scientists believe that if water did once flow on the surface of Mars, the planet's bedrock should be full of carbonates and clays, which would be evidence that Mars once hosted habitable environments with liquid water.

Researchers have struggled to find physical evidence for carbonate-rich bedrock, which may have formed when carbon dioxide in the planet's early atmosphere was trapped in ancient surface waters. They have focused their search on Mars' Huygens basin.

This feature is an ideal site to investigate carbonates because multiple impact craters and troughs have exposed ancient, subsurface materials where carbonates can be detected across a broad region. And according to study led James Wray, "outcrops in the 450-km wide Huygens basin contain both clay minerals and iron- or calcium-rich carbonate-bearing rocks."

The study has highlighted evidence of carbonate-bearing rocks in multiple sites across Mars, including Lucaya crater, where carbonates and clays 3.8 billion years old were buried by as much as 5 km of lava and caprock.

The researchers, supported by the SETI Institute's NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) team, identified carbonates on the planet using data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), which is on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This instrument collects the spectral fingerprints of carbonates and other minerals through vibrational transitions of the molecules in their crystal structure that produce infrared emission.

The team paired CRISM data with images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and Context Camera (CTX) on the orbiter, as well as the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on the Mars Global Surveyor, to gain insights into the geologic features associated with carbonate-bearing rocks.

The extent of the global distribution of Martian carbonates is not yet fully resolved and the early climate on the Red Planet is still subject of debate. However, this study is a forward step in understanding the potential habitability of ancient Mars.

Source: Mars Daily.
Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Potential_Habitats_for_Early_Life_on_Mars_999.html.

SpaceX Return of Samples Marks Next Step in One-Year Mission Science

by Rachel Hobson for ISS Science News
Houston TX (SPX)
May 24, 2016

More than one thousand tubes of blood, urine, and saliva made their way back to Earth from the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX-8 Dragon capsule, signaling an exciting next step for the scientists leading research for the recently completed One Year Mission. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth from their yearlong mission aboard the orbiting laboratory more than two months ago, but many of the samples critical to the continuation of research have only just made their way back to labs this week.

"[It's] like Christmas in May, with frost to boot," said Scott M. Smith, who holds a doctorate in nutrition and is a principal investigator of the Biochemical Profile investigation.

Smith was referring to the specialized cold stowage needed to safely transport temperature-sensitive samples. After being collected in space, crew members store the samples in the Minus Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI). The tubes are transferred to either powered freezers or insulated coolers with special ice packs which are then packed inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule to be returned to Earth.

"SpaceX provides our primary capability for sample return, allowing us to bring home freezer bags and powered freezers containing samples," said chief scientist for the space station, Julie Robinson, who holds a doctorate in Biology.

After splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, the Dragon capsule was loaded onto a ship and taken to shore in Long Beach, California. Members of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) Cold Stowage team transferred the samples to a charter aircraft, where portable, powered freezers awaited. While some investigators were on hand in California to retrieve their samples directly from the Cold Stowage team aboard the aircraft, most of the precious cargo was flown back to Houston for distribution at JSC.

"Samples coming home on Space-X include samples from a variety of human experiments," said Robinson. "Most notably blood, urine and saliva collected from the crew for the One-Year Mission and Twins Study."

Studies supported by the samples coming back in this batch include Biochemical Profile, Cardio Ox, Fluid Shifts, Microbiome, Salivary Markers and the Twins Study. A point of contact for each study was on hand to receive the samples from JSC's Cold Stowage team.

"The inventory process is actually pretty intense," said Smith.

Members of the Cold Stowage team hand samples off to researchers, who are assigned time slots for retrieving their precious cargo.

"We inventory and check every tube serial number against what we expected," said Smith. "Once we have all of [our samples], and are sure we don't have anything we're not supposed to, official documents are signed, and we bag them up to carry back to the lab."

Once back in their lab, also onsite at JSC, Smith's team will unpack and re-inventory everything once again, to ensure nothing was lost in the dry ice or during the return to the Nutritional Biochemistry Lab. From there, the samples will be packed in laboratory minus eighty-degree freezers until further preparation for analysis.

Stuart Lee, who holds a doctorate in Kinesiology, and is the principal investigator for the Cardio Ox and Cardio Ox Twins investigations, said many of the samples will be shared between his and Smith's biochemical profiles investigation. Lee said that seven subjects have completed their mission for cardio ox, but samples for only three of those have been previously returned to Earth.

"Given that, we will more than double the amount of data that we have for Cardio Ox with this sample return," said Lee. "Of course, we also get the excitement of starting to receive the data from the One-Year Mission."

Lee said that up until now, scientists' data have described the effects of spaceflight from the typical six-month missions to the space station, but data from the One-Year Mission samples will change that.

"This will be NASA's first glimpse at the effects of space travel which start to approach that which we might expect from a Mars mission," said Lee. "These data may provide clues as to whether we can expect more, or more extreme, changes as mission duration increases."

Samples for the Twins Study, in which Kelly and his identical twin brother, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, participated, also returned on SpaceX-8. The blood and urine components of those studies offer new molecular analyses for investigators.

"With these samples," said Lee. "we will have pilot data to understand spaceflight effects on and linkages between genetic expression, protein expression, and physiology, improving our understanding of the cardiovascular system in space as well as astronauts' ophthalmologic issues."

This batch of samples includes the final collection returning from space for the One-Year Mission investigations. While some of the investigations include several data collections in the year - or longer - beyond the crew's return to Earth, analysis of the returning samples can begin, in most cases, when they reach the scientists' laboratories. The Twins Study investigators have agreed to wait until after the return plus six-month data collection completes in September 2016, Smith said.

Smith said organization, tracking and careful planning is critical to successful analysis. Thought has to be given to samples that can only be thawed one time, and samples that need to be run at the same time as those collected before and after flight, to reduce variability.

"We analyze over 100 chemicals in each blood sample, and over 30 in each urine sample," said Smith. "We try to have samples available for the folks analyzing them as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, depending on the type of test, and number of samples - it can take quite a bit of time."

With samples being delivered to investigators across the country, Smith remains optimistic that the bulk of testing on these samples will be completed by the end of the year.

"[The research is] very carefully plotted out and planned, reviewed, documented and then executed," said Smith. "We only get one shot at this."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SpaceX_Return_of_Samples_Marks_Next_Step_in_One_Year_Mission_Science_999.html.

UK's First Spaceport Could Be Beside the Sea

Newquay, UK (Sputnik)
May 24, 2016

Cornwall, famous for its surf, cider and pasties, could soon become England's top destination for space tourists after Newquay was named as a potential site for the UK Space Agency's Spaceport.

Newquay Airport has been earmarked as a potential hub for pretty much everything space-related - from space technology companies, satellite launches, to space tourism and film sets.

The town's airport is already home to Aerohub, an aerospace Enterprise Zone, and has one of the longest runways in the UK - making it ideal for rocket launches.

"Our proximity to the sea means aircraft can be over open water just seconds after take-off," Mark Duddridge, Chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership said.

Duddridge also points out on his blog that the Aerohub Enterprise Zone now includes the Goonhilly Earth Station on the Lizard Peninsula which has been used to relay live messages to school kids from British astronaut Tim Peake from the International Space Station.

The revelation that Newquay could become a hub - not just for surfers - but future space tourists alike, emerged after the UK Government outlined its Modern Transport Bill which also includes a commitment to driverless cars and drones.

The Bill promises to "put Britain at the forefront of the modern transport revolution," and that includes the UK's first spaceport.

A spaceport is where sub-orbital planes operate; space experiments are performed and satellites deployed.

So for those tourists fed up with all the Cornwall's surf, cider and cream-teas, a trip into space could one day be on the horizon.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/UKs_First_Spaceport_Could_Be_Beside_the_Sea_999.html.

India's mini space shuttle blasts off

Bangalore, India (AFP)
May 23, 2016

India successfully launched its first model space shuttle on Monday, a top official said, as New Delhi joined the race to develop a reusable rocket to make space travel easier and cheaper.

The winged shuttle blasted off on a rocket from the southeastern spaceport of Sriharikota at about 7:00am (0130 GMT), with television footage showing it streaming through a clear sky.

The shuttle, about one sixth the size of a normal one, was meant to reach an altitude of 70 kilometers (43 miles) before gliding back down and splashing into the Bay of Bengal 10 minutes later.

"The lift-off was at 7am from the first launch pad here," India's space chief Devi Prasad Karnik told AFP.

"We have successfully accomplished the RLV mission as a technology demonstrator," he said.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), known for its low costs, has developed the winged shuttle called the Reusable Launch Vehicle or RLV-TD reportedly on a minuscule budget of one billion rupees ($14 million).

Monday's test mission was a crucial step towards eventually developing a full-scale, reusable shuttle to send up satellites in the future.

India faces stiff competition including from global companies which are developing their own reusable rockets after NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011.

Reusable rockets would cut costs and waste in the space industry, which currently loses millions of dollars in jettisoned machinery after each launch.

Billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin have already successfully undertaken their own test launches.

But ISRO hopes to develop its own frugal shuttle, as it seeks to cash in on a huge and lucrative demand from other countries to send up their satellites.

ISRO made global headlines in 2013 after it successfully launched an unmanned mission to orbit Mars, spending just $73 million. NASA had spent $671 million on its Maven Mars mission.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Indias_mini_space_shuttle_blasts_off_999.html.

Alexander Gerst to be Space Station commander

Paris (ESA)
May 20, 2016

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst has been assigned a new mission to the International Space Station, where he will fulfill the role of commander during the second part of his six-month mission in 2018.

The news was announced in the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel by ESA Director General Jan Woerner at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany. Alexander worked on the Station for six months on his Blue Dot mission in 2014. The German astronaut commented:

"I am humbled by receiving the honor to command the International Space Station. This international sign of trust reflects ESA's reliability as a cooperation partner, and was made possible by the fantastic work of my European colleagues on their previous missions. I am delighted by the prospect of continuing the scientific work that has been conducted on the ISS for many years. I am particularly looking forward to contributing to one of humanity's greatest exploration adventures: discovering new horizons.

Eleven European countries participate in the Station through ESA together with USA, Russia, Japan and Canada. ESA astronaut Tim Peake is currently working on the Station, to be followed by Thomas Pesquet in November.

Alexander's mission will continue the program of research that often spans multiple missions. His second flight will likely see Alexander working with ESA's Mares muscle measurement machine, researching plasma crystals in weightlessness, and testing new technologies to support ESA's human exploration program, in addition to the experiments of Station partners.

This is the second time a European astronaut will be commander of the Station in the 15 years it has been occupied - the first was Frank De Winne in 2009. Now heading the European Astronaut Center, Frank noted, "Alexander showed outstanding performance, high professionalism and excellent interaction skills during his Blue Dot mission.

"For these reasons, the European Astronaut Center proposed to the international partners that Alexander be the commander of the Space Station."

Alexander's second mission will run from May to November 2018 as part of Expeditions 56 and 57. He will be commander during the second part of his stay, during Expedition 57.

Alexander joined the ESA astronaut corps in 2009 and was assigned his first mission in 2011. He was awarded Germany's Order of Merit on return from his 166 days in space in 2014.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Alexander_Gerst_to_be_Space_Station_commander_999.html.

Cambridge: Evidence of Comets Orbiting a Sun-like Star

Munich, Germany (SPX)
May 20, 2016

An international team of astronomers have found evidence of ice and comets orbiting a nearby Sun-like star, which could give a glimpse into how our own solar system developed. Using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, detected very low levels of carbon monoxide gas around the star, in amounts that are consistent with the comets in our own solar system.

The results, which will be presented at the 'Resolving Planet Formation in the Era of ALMA and Extreme AO' [adaptive optics] conference in Santiago, Chile, are a first step in establishing the properties of comet clouds around Sun-like stars just after the time of their birth.

Comets are essentially 'dirty snowballs' of ice and rock, sometimes with a tail of dust and evaporating ice trailing behind them, and are formed early in the development of stellar systems. They are typically found in the outer reaches of our solar system, but become most clearly visible when they visit the inner regions. For example, Halley's Comet visits the inner solar system every 75 years, some take as long as 100,000 years between visits, and others only visit once before being thrown out into interstellar space.

It's believed that when our solar system was first formed, the Earth was a rocky wasteland, similar to how Mars is today, and that as comets collided with the young planet, they brought many elements and compounds, including water, along with them.

The star in this study, HD 181327, has a mass about 30% greater than the Sun and is located 160 light-years away in the Painter [Pictor] constellation. The system is about 23 million years old, whereas our solar system is 4.6 billion years old.

"Young systems such as this one are very active, with comets and asteroids slamming into each other and into planets," said Sebastian Marino, a PhD student from Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy and the paper's lead author. "The system has a similar ice composition to our own, so it's a good one to study in order to learn what our solar system looked like early in its existence."

Using ALMA, the astronomers observed the star, which is surrounded by a ring of dust caused by the collisions of comets, asteroids and other bodies. It's likely that this star has planets in orbit around it, but they are impossible to detect using current telescopes.

"Assuming there are planets orbiting this star, they would likely have already formed, but the only way to see them would be through direct imaging, which at the moment can only be used for very large planets like Jupiter," said co-author Luca Matra, also a PhD student at Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy.

In order to detect the possible presence of comets, the researchers used ALMA to search for signatures of gas, since the same collisions which caused the dust ring to form should also cause the release of gas. Until now, such gas has only been detected around a few stars, all substantially more massive than the Sun. Using simulations to model the composition of the system, they were able to increase the signal to noise ratio in the ALMA data, and detect very low levels of carbon monoxide gas.

"This is the lowest gas concentration ever detected in a belt of asteroids and comets - we're really pushing ALMA to its limits," said Marino.

"The amount of gas we detected is analogous to a 200 kilometer diameter ice ball, which is impressive considering how far away the star is," said Matra. "It's amazing that we can do this with exoplanetary systems now."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Cambridge_Evidence_of_Comets_Orbiting_a_Sun_like_Star_999.html.