In brief | Nation & World, 07-29-14


Fighting in eastern Ukraine prompts residents to flee and keeps investigators from plane site

SHAKHTARSK, Ukraine — Panicky residents in an eastern Ukrainian town fled their homes Monday carrying a few possessions in plastic bags and small suitcases as shells exploded in the distance, fighting that also prevented an international police team from reaching the area where the Malaysia Airlines plane was downed.

“Mom, hang in there,” exclaimed a weeping woman who was fleeing Shakhtarsk with her mother. Associated Press reporters saw a high-rise apartment block in the town being hit by at least two rounds of artillery.

The fighting there and elsewhere in the area kept Dutch and Australian police for the second day from reaching the site where the plane crashed after being shot from the sky. They had planned to begin searching for remaining bodies and gathering forensic evidence and the delay strained tempers among international observers.

“There is a job to be done,” said Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “We are sick and tired of being interrupted by gunfights, despite the fact that we have agreed that there should be a ceasefire.”

The plane was downed on July 17 while flying over a part of eastern Ukraine where government forces and pro-Russia separatist rebels have been fighting for months. Ukrainian and Western officials say the plane was shot down by a rebel missile, most likely by mistake, and that Russia supplied the weapon or trained rebels to use it. Both the rebels and Moscow deny that.

Blowing up shrines, extremists shrug off restraint and unleash their vision on Iraq’s Mosul

BAGHDAD — Residents of Mosul have watched helplessly as extremists ruling the northern Iraqi city blew up some of their most beloved landmarks and shrines to impose a stark vision of Islam. Next up for destruction, they feared: the Crooked Minaret, a more than 840-year-old tower that leans like Italy’s Tower of Pisa.

But over the weekend, residents pushed back. When fighters from the Islamic State group loaded with heavy explosives converged on the site, Mosulis living nearby rushed to the courtyard below the minaret, sat on the ground and linked arms to form a human chain to protect it, two residents who witnessed the event told The Associated Press on Monday.

They told the fighters, If you blow up the minaret, you’ll have to kill us too, the witnesses said.

The militants backed down and left, said the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the militants.

But residents are certain the militants will try again. Over the past two weeks, the extremists ruling Iraq’s second largest city have shrugged off previous restraint and embarked on a brutal campaign to purge Mosul of anything that challenges their radical interpretation of Islam. The militants — though Sunnis — target shrines revered by other Sunni Muslims because the sites are dedicated to popular religious figures. In the radicals’ eyes, that commits one of the worst violations of Islam: encouraging worship of others besides God.

As deadline looms, lawmakers reach $17B deal on VA health care

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan deal announced Monday would authorize about $17 billion to help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat veterans and make it easier to fire executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

An agreement announced by the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees is intended to fix a veterans’ health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays.

The bill includes $10 billion in emergency spending to make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country, lawmakers said.

The bill also would expand a scholarship program for veterans, allow all veterans to qualify for in-state college tuition and grant the VA secretary authority to immediately fire senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights.

“This bill makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs panel.

By wire sources