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More protests called in Moscow to demand Navalny’s release

By DARIA LITVINOVA for the Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Moscow braced for more protests seeking the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who faces a court hearing Tuesday after two weekends of nationwide rallies and thousands of arrests in the largest outpouring of discontent in Russia in years.

Riot police block an area protecting against demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. Thousands of people took to the streets Sunday across Russia to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up the wave of nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin. Hundreds were detained by police. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Tens of thousands filled the streets across the vast country Sunday, chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin and demanding freedom for Navalny, who was jailed last month and faces years in prison. Over 5,400 protesters were detained by authorities, according to a human rights group.

One of those taken into custody for several hours was Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who was ordered Monday to pay a fine of about $265 for participating in an unauthorized rally.

While state-run media dismissed the demonstrations as small and claimed that they showed the failure of the opposition, Navalny’s team said the turnout demonstrated “overwhelming nationwide support” for the Kremlin’s fiercest critic. His allies called for protesters to come to the Moscow courthouse on Tuesday.

“Without your help, we won’t be able to resist the lawlessness of the authorities,” his politician’s team said in a social media post.

Mass protests engulfed dozens of Russian cities for the second weekend in a row despite efforts by authorities to stifle the unrest triggered by the jailing of 44-year-old Navalny.

He was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities reject the accusation. He faces a prison term for alleged probation violations from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that is widely seen as politically motivated.

Last month, Russia’s prison service filed a motion to replace his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence from the conviction with one he must serve. The Prosecutor General’s office backed the motion Monday, alleging Navalny engaged in “unlawful conduct” during the probation period.

After his arrest, Navalny’s team released a two-hour YouTube video alleging that an opulent Black Sea residence was built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times, further stoking Russians’ discontent amid an economic downturn. The Kremlin says Putin is not connected to the residence, and the president addressed the allegations himself last week, saying neither he nor his relatives owned any of the properties mentioned in the video.

The rallies following Navalny’s arrest appear to have rattled the Kremlin. To try to quell the protests, the authorities have jailed Navalny’s associates and activists across the country. His brother Oleg, top ally Lyubov Sobol and three others were put under house arrest for two months and face criminal charges of violating coronavirus restrictions.

On Tuesday, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh was also put under house for two months in connection with the same charge. Yarmysh was ordered to serve nine days in jail last month for violating protest regulations. She was supposed to be released on Saturday, but was arrested again.

At least 40 criminal investigations have been opened in 18 Russian regions in connection with the protests, said Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights organization Agora.

Police cracked down hard on the demonstrators Sunday, detaining over 5,400 of them, according to OVD-Info, a legal aid group that monitors arrests at protests. The group said that was the biggest number in its nine-year history of keeping records in the Putin era.

At least 51 protesters were beaten by police while being detained, OVD-Info said. Videos of the protests showed riot police striking people with truncheons and throwing them to the ground. Media reported some police used stun guns on protesters.

When asked about the mass detentions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the protests were “unlawful” and charged that “there was a fairly large number of hooligans, provocateurs with more or less aggressive behavior toward law enforcement officers.”

“In response to provocations, the police act harshly and within the law,” Peskov said.

State media also highlighted “aggressive actions” by protesters in their coverage, which said the rallies Sunday drew far fewer people than the previous one on Jan. 23. Many reports underscored “polite” actions by police officers, and state TV channel Russia 1 even showed video statements of people thanking law enforcement officers in connection with the rallies.

The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests prompted international outrage, with Western officials calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators.

The German government urged the immediate release of the arrested protesters, as well as Navalny. It “condemns the use of force by Russian security forces and the once again disproportionate action against peacefully demonstrating citizens,” government spokeswoman Martina Fietz said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Washington “condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight.” He also urged the release of Navalny and those detained “for exercising their human rights.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected Blinken’s call as “crude interference in Russia’s internal affairs” and accused Washington of trying to destabilize the situation by backing the protests.

Major storm hits Northeast, more than foot of snow forecast

For the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Instead of closing schools and giving students snow days, the latest winter storm is shutting down vaccination sites and snarling other pandemic-related services in many states that could see as much as a foot of snow by Monday evening.

Pedestrians make their way through heavy snow and wind in Hoboken, N.J., Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Lara Pagano, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said a nor’easter developing off the mid-Atlantic coast will be a “pretty slow mover” as it brings heavy snow and strong winds through Tuesday.

“It’s going to be a prolonged event,” Pagano said.

As of Monday morning, some areas had already gotten 3 to 5 inches (7.6 to 12.7 centimeters) of snow, with 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) in parts of Pennsylvania, she said. In parts of New Jersey, 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) already was reported as of Monday morning.

In-person learning was canceled in school districts across the Northeast on Monday, and many COVID-19 vaccination sites were closed. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on MSNBC Monday morning that he hoped city-run vaccination sites could reopen on Tuesday.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency on Sunday and closed all state government offices for nonessential personnel.

Hundreds of flights were canceled at the region’s major airports on Monday. Transportation officials said on Twitter that 81% of flights were canceled at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and 75% at Newark Liberty Airport.

Amtrak canceled all Acela service between Boston and Washington and Pennsylvanian service between New York and Pittsburgh. Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, Keystone Service and Empire Service were operating on limited or modified schedules.

All New Jersey Transit trains and buses were suspended, except for the Atlantic City Rail Line. New York Waterway ferries were suspended.

In recent days, a storm system blanketed parts of the Midwest, with some areas getting the most snow in several years. Ohio, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia also received snow.

Snow and cold in Washington led President Joe Biden to postpone a visit to the State Department that had been planned for Monday. A White House official said Sunday night that the visit would be rescheduled for later in the week when the agency’s staff and diplomats could more safely commute to attend.

Finland deploys coronavirus-sniffing dogs at main airport

By JARI TANNER for the Associated Press

HELSINKI (AP) — Finland has deployed coronavirus-sniffing dogs at the Nordic country’s main international airport in a four-month trial of an alternative testing method that could become a cost-friendly and quick way to identify infected travelers.

Four dogs of different breeds trained by Finland’s Smell Detection Association started working Wednesday at the Helsinki Airport as part of the government-financed trial.

“It’s a very promising method. Dogs are very good at sniffing,” Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a University of Helsinki professor of equine and small animal medicine, said.

“If it works, it will be a good (coronavirus) screening method at any other places,” she said, listing hospitals, ports, elderly people’s homes, sports venues and cultural events among the possible locations where trained dogs could put their snouts to work.

While researchers in several countries, including Australia, France, Germany the United States, are also studying canines as coronavirus detectors, the Finnish trial is among the largest so far.

Hielm-Bjorkman told The Associated Press that Finland is the second country after the United Arab Emirates – and the first in Europe – to assign dogs to sniff out the coronavirus. A similar program started at Dubai International Airport over the summer.

Passengers who agree to take a free test under the voluntary program in Helsinki do not have direct physical contact with a dog.

They are asked to swipe their skin with a wipe which is then put into a jar and given to a dog waiting in a separate booth. The participating animals – ET, Kossi, Miina and Valo – previously underwent training to detect cancer, diabetes or other diseases.

It takes the dog a mere 10 seconds to sniff the virus samples before it gives the test result by scratching a paw, laying down, barking or otherwise making its conclusion known. The process should be completed within one minute, according to Hielm-Bjorkman.

If the result is positive, the passenger is urged to take a standard polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, coronavirus test, to check the dog’s accuracy.

Timo Aronkyto,, the deputy mayor of Vantaa, the capital region city where the airport is located, said the program is costing 300,000 euros ($350,000) – an amount he called “remarkably lower” than for other methods of mass testing arriving passengers.

The four sniffer dogs are set to work at the airport in shifts, with two on duty at a time while the other two get a break.

“Dogs need to rest from time to time. If the scent is easy, it doesn’t wear out the dog too much. But if there are lots of new scents around, dogs do get tired easier,“ Anette Kare of Finland’s Smell Detection Association – also known as Wise Nose – said as she gently patted ET, her white shepherd.

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River Boat Collision in Budapest Kills 7 People, 21 Remain Missing

A river boat cruise through the Hungarian capital of Budapest went horribly wrong on Wednesday night, when the boat hit another, bigger vessel and flipped over, sending passengers into the water.

Hundreds of rescue workers line the shores of the Danube River in Budapest to help locate the missing passengers from sightseeing boat (Photo by GERGELY BESENYEI / AFP)GERGELY BESENYEI/AFP/Getty Images

Seven people were confirmed dead after the accident, while 21 people remain missing. Of the 35 passengers on board the sightseeing boat, 33 were South Korean nationals.

Hungarian police said the boats collided and the sightseeing boat flipped and sank in seven seconds. The captain of the largest vessel is being held by police, who are considering arresting him formally. Known only as Mr. Yuriy, the 64-year-old man from Ukraine, is being detained due to suspicious evidence found by police when they searched his vessel.

The Viking Sigyn hotelship sustained visible damage following its collision with the sightseeing boat on the River Danube in Budapest, on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Photo Courtesy of Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP

Police have continued to search for the 21 missing passengers, though the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, said in a statement on Wednesday that poor weather had affected the rescue efforts.

Police did manage to rescue seven passengers from the initial accident, all of whom were sent to local hospitals to be treated for injuries. Six of the passengers have now been discharged, while one passenger is still being treated for broken ribs, according to an ER doctor who spoke with CNN.

Of the seven people killed in the accident, all were of South Korean nationality. None of the passengers had been wearing life jackets, said police.