China convicts 55 of suspected terrorism at public event

Bill Hall

BEIJING — In a stadium filled with 7,000 people, a Chinese court announced guilty verdicts for 55 people on charges of terrorism, separatism and murder as the government tries to display its determination to combat unrest in the troubled northwest region.

The public event was a show of force in Xinjiang after 43 people were killed last week in an attack at a vegetable market in the regional capital, Urumqi.

Such sentencing rallies were formerly common across China, but have in recent years been mostly restricted to Xinjiang and the neighboring restive region of Tibet. That appears to speak to a separate brand of justice carried out against government critics and others accused of crimes who hail from minority ethnic groups, underscored by the announcement last week of a special one-year security crackdown in Xinjiang focusing on suspected terrorists, religious extremist groups, illegal weapons makers and terrorist training camps.

At least one convict received a death sentence at the event Tuesday in Yili, in northern Xinjiang near the Kazakhstan border, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The report gave few details about the cases, but defendants whose names were reported all appeared to be Uighurs, members of the region’s biggest Muslim ethnic minority group.

The government says unrest among Uighurs is caused by extremist groups with ties to Islamic terror groups abroad, but experts say they see little evidence of that.

Uighur activists say public resentment against Beijing is fueled by an influx of settlers from China’s Han ethnic majority and official discrimination against minorities.

Among Tuesday’s cases, three defendants were convicted of using unspecified “extremely cruel methods” to kill four people, including a 3-year-old girl, in the city of Yining on April 20, 2013, according to Xinhua.

Egypt’s early election results point to el-Sissi trouncing opponent

CAIRO — Partial results of Egypt’s presidential election show the nation’s military chief comfortably ahead of his rival after votes from 2,000 polling stations were counted.

The results announced late Wednesday by the campaign of retired field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi show him winning 4.2 million votes, with opponent Hamdeen Sabahi taking 133,548.

El-Sissi’s win was never in doubt, but the 59-year-old career infantry officer also wished for a strong turnout to bestow legitimacy on his ouster last July of Egypt’s first freely-elected president Mohammed Morsi.

Suspected Russian combatants make Ukrainian border primary battleground

DONETSK, Ukraine — As separatists conceded that militants from Russia’s republic of Chechnya had joined the rebellion, a Ukrainian government official cautioned Wednesday that its borders had become a front line in the crisis.

While there is no immediate indication that the Kremlin is enabling or supporting combatants from Russia crossing into Ukraine, Moscow may have to dispel suspicions it is waging a proxy war if it is to avoid more Western sanctions.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, President Barack Obama addressed the crisis in Ukraine by saying, “Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe.”

The Kremlin welcomed the election Sunday of billionaire Petro Poroshenko as the president of Ukraine. An advocate of strong ties with Europe, Poroshenko also favors mending relations with Russia.

He replaced the pro-Moscow leader who was driven from office in February. That ouster led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine — which triggered the sanctions — and a violent pro-Moscow insurgency in the east.

Reports circulate almost daily of truckloads of gunmen crossing from Russia, and authorities believe they are a vital reinforcement to the armed rebel force that has repeatedly thwarted government security operations. Intense fighting from a government offensive Monday to dislodge rebels from the Donetsk airport appeared to have died down, with only sporadic violence reported Wednesday.

Ukrainian border service head Mykola Lytvyn said he has deployed all reserves to the eastern and southern frontiers.

“Our border, especially in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, has become a front line that various terrorists are trying to break through,” Lytvyn said at a news conference in Kiev. “Daily fighting with terrorists and groups of criminals near the Ukrainian and Russian border have become our routine reality.”

The Kiev government condemns the roiling insurgency as the work of terrorists bent on destroying the country, while rebels insist they are only protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population of the east.

Russia denies mass border crossings are taking place, although separatist leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic now freely admit their ragtag army has many foreigners, including some from the Russian province of Chechnya.

It is this Chechen contingent that has aroused the most alarm in Ukraine.

Although the presence in Ukraine of an unspecified number of armed Russians is now confirmed, it is far from evident that they have Moscow’s outright blessing.

21 die in South Korean fire, nursing home resident a suspect

SEOUL, South Korea — A fire believed set by an 81-year-old dementia patient blazed through a hospital ward for the elderly Wednesday and killed 21 people in southern South Korea, mostly from smoke inhalation, police and fire officials said.

The fire on the second floor of the Hyosarang Hospital in Jangseong County also injured seven people.

Media reports noted that nursing homes like Hyosarang are not required to have sprinklers in South Korea, despite a rapidly aging population.

“These are the incidents that wretchedly show the dangerous foundation on which our country is established,” a Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper said in an editorial on its website.

Security video showed the suspect entering the room where the blaze began, and the remains of a lighter were found in that room, police station chief Noh Kyu-ho said in a televised briefing. Noh said the man, identified only by his surname Kim, denied responsibility.

The video footage showed the fire starting to spread from that room about two minutes after Kim left, another police officer said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of department rules. Thirty-four patients and one nurse were on the hospital’s second floor at the time of the blaze, and Jangseong Fire Department officials said 20 of the patients and the nurse were killed, mostly from suffocation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules.

Officials said that 45 people, including a nurse, were on the hospital’s first floor but that they all escaped.

Kim Jeong-bae, one of the firefighters who entered the building, said none of the bodies that he and his colleagues retrieved were burned and that they apparently were already dead when firefighters entered the hospital while it was engulfed in black smoke.

It is too early to say if safety issues were involved in this fire.

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