MP probing Russian troop deaths ‘attacked’

A Russian opposition lawmaker who attended the secret funeral of a soldier apparently killed in Ukraine is in hospital after what he says was a politically motivated attack.

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Speaking from his hospital bed, Lev Shlosberg, who had been investigating Russian soldiers’ presence in Ukraine, linked the assault late on Friday to his probe.

He said about 100 paratroopers based in his northwestern town of Pskov had been killed in combat in Ukraine.

“An entire company was killed,” the 51-year-old leader of a regional branch of the opposition party Yabloko said by telephone, citing figures given to him by the soldiers’ families.

Russia denies claims it has deployed regular troops to Ukraine.

Earlier this week, Shlosberg, who is also a journalist for a local newspaper, attended the burial of a soldier near Pskov.

On Friday evening he was assaulted by three unidentified assailants in an attack that left him hospitalised with head and eye injuries and a concussion, his aide Alexander Zakharov said.

Shlosberg said he and colleagues from Yabloko knew that at least three soldiers apparently killed in Ukraine had been buried near Pskov this month.

The lawmaker suggested that the slain soldiers were being buried across Russia in secret.

After a handful of media reported on the Pskov funerals, the name tags were removed from the men’s graves, said independent TV channel Dozhd.

Russian military commanders had imposed a virtual blackout on any information about the deployment of servicemen, Shlosberg and Zakharov said.

Relatives of the soldiers had been threatened not to speak to media, saying otherwise the men may not come back alive, Shlosberg said.

Outside a military base in the central Russian town of Kostroma on Thursday, Agence France-Presse reporters witnessed a similar situation, with army wives being discouraged from speaking to media.

Valeria Sokolova, the only soldier’s wife who agreed to be interviewed in Kostroma, said about 350 soldiers from the town had been sent this month to the border with Ukraine and had gone incommunicado.

Commanders have refused to specify their whereabouts, only saying the soldiers are “not in Russia”, said Sokolova, adding that several body bags had come back this week.

She has not answered her phone since Friday.

The commander of Russia’s paratroopers, Vladimir Shamanov, has told reporters that “everyone is alive and well”.

Shlosberg does not remember the details of the assault.

“The memory of that has completely disappeared,” he said.

“They attacked me from behind, the people who did this are professionals.”

His party also linked the attack to his investigation.

“I believe that attack on Lev Shlosberg is connected to his investigation of the deployment of Pskov paratroopers to Ukraine,” Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said on Twitter.

Shlosberg pointed the finger at Putin. “It’s his war,” he said.

A criminal probe has been opened, prosecutors said.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe also called for a full investigation, noting that there have been several recent attacks on journalists in the region.

Kiev says regular Russian troops are on the ground in Ukraine fighting alongside separatists, who this week staged a lightning counter-offensive that has turned the tide in the nearly five-month conflict.

Russia is conducting military drills near the border with Ukraine, but officials have repeatedly denied that its troops have been deployed to its ex-Soviet neighbour.

Rights groups and opposition leaders called on Putin to stop what they dubbed an “undeclared war”.

“We demand that Russian aggression against Ukraine be immediately halted,” the country’s oldest rights group, Memorial, said in a statement.

Writing in local newspaper Pskovskaya Gubernia this week, Shlosberg said Russia was in the grips of a “genuine fratricidal war”.

“How many people with Ukrainian roots are among Russian servicemen? How many people with Russian roots are among Ukrainian servicemen?”

No place to hide for top seeds as Krunic adds to upsets

With five of the top eight women’s seeds shown the exit there has been no safe place to hide for the tournament favourites.

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The surprises have come from everywhere; a 15-year-old American tennis sweetheart, a 32-year-old Croatian veteran looking to recapture her glory days and Krunic, a young Serbian who pays as much attention to her studies as her game.

American Catherine Bellis became the belle of the U.S. grand slam ball when the 15-year-old toppled Slovakian 12th seed and Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the opening round.

Croatian Mirjana Lucic-Baroni nudged the teenager out of the spotlight on Friday with a stunning third round win over second seed Simona Halep while 17-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic joined in on the upset fun ousting sixth-seeded German Angelique Kerber.

One of the big criticism of the women’s game has been that it is too predictable but one look at the rankings confirms that is not the case at the year’s final grand slam with Bellis at 1,208, Krunic 145 and Lucic-Baroni 121.

Krunic, who aims to graduate from university in Serbia this year with a degree in economics, calculated her chances were best by concentrating on her own game and not worry about who was standing on the other side of the net and followed the plan with precision.

Certainly the 21-year-old Serb has earned straight As for her work at the U.S. Open, which has included a second round win over American 27th seed Madison Keys.

“When you are playing the smaller tournaments all the time, I honestly didn’t know what to expect from myself at all,” said Krunic. “I don’t know my limits. Today I think I pushed myself to my total limits.

“Even I know that it was not Petra’s best day and she missed a lot. I don’t know if I made her miss with my game or not.

“But still if she would have played her best tennis I don’t think the outcome would be the same.

“I tried to keep the tactics that I have been given. Yeah, that was my only chance. Honestly, I didn’t expect it at all, for sure.”

The diminutive Krunic was a blur as she sprinted across the court sliding into splits stretching for returns to the applause of the large crowd.

Extending rallies with bursts of speed that often took her from the forehand corner to the backhand border, Krunic drew 34 errors from the left-hander while committing just 14.

Kvitova tried to seize control, unleashing 33 winners to only 17 from Krunic, but too often failed in the big moments against a determined opponent with nothing to lose.

The three wins at Flushing Meadows were the first three posted by Krunic in a grand slam.

“I tried not to think about the score,” said Krunic. “I tried to put the pressure off my shoulders because usually last couple of years I’m the one who is putting the pressure on myself.

“I didn’t expect myself to be so calm but I really focused my 100 percent not to think about anything that is happening, about the court, about so many people, about Petra.

“At 6-5 in the second when I made the dropshot for 40-Love, that’s the point that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have triple match point. Maybe I can really win it.’

“Obviously throughout the whole match I believed more and more, otherwise I wouldn’t win.”

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

Allegri enjoys winning start at Juventus

Ex-Milan coach Allegri will be delighted with the display of 18-year-old French striker Kingsley Coman, a close-season free transfer signing from Paris Saint Germain.

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Coman, paired with a slimmed-down Carlos Tevez in attack, looked confident, sharp and dangerous throughout his Serie A debut.

The decisive goal came when Juve’s Uruguayan defender Martin Caceres got on the end of a corner at the back post and saw his powerful header was turned in by Biraghi, who is on loan at Chievo from Inter Milan.

Coman went close with a fierce shot on the turn in the 36th minute that force a fine save out of Chievo keeper Francesco Bardi, also on loan from Inter.

The woodwork kept Chievo in the game though – Tevez and Caceres both hitting the bar shortly before the break as Juventus looked to extend their lead.

After the interval, Juve, without injured playmaker Andrea Pirlo, continued to press forward and enjoy the better of the possession although their keeper Gianluigi Buffon had to be sharp to foil a Maxi Lopez drive in the 77th minute.

FIRST OUTING

Allegri said he was pleased with the first outing of his team, who have won the last three Serie A titles.

“I was a little worried at the end because after all those chances we missed, we risked it and needed Buffon to make a great save,” said the Juventus coach.

“We had enough chances to close out the game, We were a bit too worn out at the end but it was a good game and now we can get some players back during the (international) break,” added Allegri.

Roma are viewed by many as the team most likely to challenge Juve at the top this year and they made a positive start to their campaign with Ivory Coast forward Gervinho creating one goal and grabbing the second against Fiorentina.

Former Chelsea and England fullback Ashley Cole made his Serie A debut against a Fiore team coached by ex-Roma striker Vincenzo Montella.

Belgian midfielder Raddja Nainggolan opened the scoring in the 28th minute, bursting through from midfield and feeding Gervinho, whose low shot was parried by Fiorentina’s Brazilian keeper Neto only for Nainggolan to blast home the loose ball.

Fiore twice went close to an equaliser just after the hour – Josip Ilicic hitting the bar with a curling free-kick before Khouma Babacar’s close-range effort was well blocked by Roma keeper Morgan De Sanctis.

But in injury time Roma wrapped up the three points with Nainggolan returning the favour to Gervinho with a perfectly weighted through ball and the Ivorian rounding Neto before slotting into the unguarded goal.

The first Sunday of the season sees Filippo Inzaghi’s AC Milan host Lazio while Inter are at Torino and Napoli travel to Genoa.

(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ken Ferris)

Rebuilding Gaza will take 20 years: group

An international organisation involved in assessing post-conflict reconstruction says it will take 20 years for Gaza’s battered and neglected housing stock to be rebuilt following the war between Hamas and Israel.

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The assessment by Shelter Cluster, chaired by the Norwegian Refugee Council with the participation of the UN refugee agency and the Red Cross, underscores the complexities involved in an overall reconstruction program for the Gaza Strip, which some Palestinian officials have estimated could cost in excess of $US6 billion ($A6.49 billion).

Any effort to rebuild Gaza will be hindered by a blockade imposed by Egypt and Israel since the militant group Hamas seized power in 2007.

Israel has severely restricted the import of concrete and other building materials into Gaza, fearing that militants will use them to build rockets and reinforce cross-border attack tunnels.

Egypt and Norway have raised the possibility of convening a Gaza donors’ conference at some point next month, but no firm arrangements have been made.

With a population of 1.8 million, Gaza is a densely populated coastal strip of urban warrens and agricultural land that still bears the scars of previous rounds of fighting.

In its report issued late on Friday, Shelter Cluster said 17,000 Gaza housing units were destroyed or severely damaged during the most recent fighting and 5000 units still need work after damage sustained in previous military campaigns.

In addition, it says, Gaza has a housing deficit of 75,000 units.

Shelter Cluster said its 20-year assessment is based on the capacity of the main Israel-Gaza cargo crossing to handle 100 trucks of construction materials daily.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli government agency responsible for operating the crossing on whether it had future plans to ease restrictions on goods going into Gaza.

Israel and Hamas agreed on Tuesday to an open-ended truce.

The ceasefire brought an immediate end to the fighting but left key issues unresolved.

Hamas immediately declared victory, even though it has very little to show for the war.

While Israel agreed to loosen its long-standing blockade to allow humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza, many of the border restrictions will remain in place.

Hamas, meanwhile, rejected Israel’s demands that it disarm.

These deeper matters are only to be addressed in indirect talks in Egypt next month.

Mindful of Israel’s concerns about Hamas, Britain, France and Germany have proposed the creation of an international mechanism to monitor goods going into Gaza.

The goal of the mechanism would be insure that Hamas and other militant groups would not divert construction materials like iron and cement into weapons or weapons manufacturing facilities.

The latest war began after three Israeli teens were killed in the West Bank by Hamas operatives in June, prompting Israel to arrest hundreds of Hamas members there.

Rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities then escalated, and Israel launched a massive air and later ground campaign.

The fighting lasted almost two months.

Egyptian mediators tried early on to get the sides to agree to a ceasefire.

More than 2,100 Palestinians, most civilians, died in the war.

Israel lost 71 people, all but six of them soldiers.