Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
(Vasily Mximov/AFP/Getty Images)
January 20, 2014

Low Hopes, High Stakes For Syria Peace Conference In Geneva

Can a meeting in Switzerland, known as Geneva-2, solve the crisis in Syria? 

The expectations are low. The warring parties are reluctant. Some of the most important players, including powerful armed rebel groups, are not on the invitation list.

The superpower hosts, the U.S. and Russia, fully back the peace conference, set for Wednesday. They hope to kick-start a political process and end the armed conflict that has ravaged Syria and destabilized the region.

More than 40 countries have been invited, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. But the key delegations are the one representing President Bashar Assad's government and the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed, exiled political opposition group based in Istanbul.

The U.N, U.S. and Russia have spent enormous diplomatic capital just to get participants to the table, but can those parties produce a meaningful outcome?

Creating A 'Diplomatic Track'

"They expect some sort of a process to start, or at least they are hoping," says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. "There is a fair amount of gloom that they can achieve anything." The lowest common goal, he says, is "a hope and a prayer that the parties show up to continue the discussions in another set of conferences and meetings."

Since the revolt in Syria began, the deep conviction of the Assad regime was to crush the uprising. For the opposition, regime change was the goal. Now, both sides must recalculate. At least, that is the hope.

"Now, they have to create a diplomatic track and conduct negotiations under fire," says Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi. Many Syrians hope for the emergence of "real politics" for the first time in Syria's recent history.

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets lower bar for success. "We should think of this as a kind of 'getting to know you,' as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here," Joshi says, "what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example."

Assad Regime's Bet

Prodded by Russia, the Assad regime was the first to sign up for the negotiations, naming a delegation for a conference which is supposed to create a transitional government in Damascus.

Syria's foreign minister even proposed a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo, and promised to facilitate deliveries of humanitarian aid to rebel-held neighborhoods around the capital. Syrian government troops have besieged these areas for months, withholding food and medicine to rebels and civilians alike in a "starve to submission" policy that's been widely condemned by international aid organizations.

The regime's offer was hailed in Moscow as a sign that a political solution was possible after all, but regional analysts interpreted the proposal as a ploy to please the Russians and to cling to power. At the same time, the offer took advantage of the infighting among the political opposition and the turmoil in northern Syria as rebels confront an al-Qaida-linked group.

"It's a question of projecting their bargaining position, of showing they have a good hand," says Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute, describing the regime strategy. This opening offer demonstrates that Assad holds the key to urgent issues and the message is clear. "If you want to be able to enforce a peace, it's the regime you have to go through," Joshi says.

But for the Assad regime, negotiations also pose a threat. "It's a question of survival," says one Syrian commentator, who did not want to be named for fear of endangering his family in Syria. "They can't signal any sign of compromise. They will be in trouble with their base, who will see it as a sign of panic."

A year ago, many Western officials and commentators were predicting the impending fall of Assad and an end to the fighting. Almost no one thinks that way now. Damascus is widely seen as having the upper hand on both the military and political front. Regime forces have reversed rebel gains around the capital and in the contested city of Aleppo with the help of additional ground troops from militias crossing from Lebanon and Iraq.

Assad got a political boost when he became a willing partner to a U.S.-Russia brokered deal to remove his chemical arsenal. The change in perception weighs heavily on opposition leaders who are wary of being drawn into a long process that could result in Assad staying in office.

A Splintered Opposition

The opposition's Western backers have little leverage to force Assad from power, but they did push the opposition to abandon its bottom line (that Assad must go before the negotiations begin). Now the regime's political opponents will have to get something worth having for showing up in Switzerland or risk losing any relevance at all.

Syria's political opposition is a fractious bunch. They waited until the last minute to vote on attending the Swiss talks with debates so heated the organization is near collapse. Under intense pressure from Western governments, which threatened to withdraw support, they were finally forced to the negotiating table because all else failed.

But the delegation has little legitimacy on the ground where armed rebel groups rule. If a deal were to be struck at the Switzerland conference, it's hard to see how the political opposition could implement it inside Syria. Many activists and rebel groups inside Syria remain opposed to the peace conference and say the coalition doesn't represent them.

Revolution Or Terrorism?

The long-anticipated meeting in Switzerland opens with competing narratives about the basic details that sparked the Syrian conflict. The opposition insists this is a revolution, a popular uprising against a tyrannical regime.

"For the Russians and the regime," says Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center, "this is about fighting terrorism, about dispelling the notion that Assad has to leave." Moscow appears to be backing Syria's insistence that talks should focus on combating terrorism, which Assad claims is back by the West and Gulf Arab states.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. "Nobody is going to be fooled" by Assad's attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, "when he, himself, has been funding those extremists."

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

"All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS," says a Western diplomat. "There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies."


January 19, 2014

House Intelligence Chairman Implies Snowden Had Help From Russians

Rep. Mike Rogers made some strong allegations against former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.

Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, implied that Snowden received helped from Russia's security service both to steal the highly classified documents and then to travel to Russia, where he received temporary asylum.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

NBC News reports:

"'He was stealing information that had to do with how we operate overseas to collect information to keep Americans safe.... And some of the things he did were beyond his technical capabilities' — a fact which Rogers said 'raises more questions. How he arranged travel before he left. How he was ready to go, he had a go bag, if you will.'

"Rogers added that he believes 'there's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB (Russian security service) agent in Moscow. I don't think that's a coincidence....I don't think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB.'"

While some lawmakers have called Snowden a traitor, these are some of the strongest allegations levied against Snowden, whom polls show Americans consider a whistleblower.

In an interview with The New York Times in October, Snowden said he had ditched all the classified documents he took by the time he landed in Russia.

The revelations made by Snowden spurred President Obama to issue reforms of an NSA program that collects a vast amount of metadata on Americans' phone calls.

During a speech on Friday, where Obama unveiled reforms to some NSA programs, he referred to Snowden only in passing.

"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations. I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy."

The chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein was asked if she thought Snowden had help from the Russians.

"He may well have," she said. "We don't know at this stage."

Snowden has been charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property.


A woman wiped away tears Monday in Volgograd, Russia, after the second suicide bombing in that city in the past two days.
(Denis Tyrin/AP)
December 30, 2013

'Blood On The Snow' After Second Suicide Blast In Russia

There's shock in the southern Russian city of Volgograd after what appears to have been the second suicide bombing in two days.

Monday morning's blast "tore through an electric bus ... killing 14," The Associated Press reports. About 30 other people were wounded.

The carnage follows Sunday's explosion at the city's main train station — a suicide attack that killed at least 17 people. Another 40 or so were injured by that blast.

Near the scene of Monday's bombing, Reuters writes, a woman choked back tears as she spoke: "For the second day, we are dying. It's a nightmare," she said. "What are we supposed to do, just walk now?"

The BBC says that "Maksim Akhmetov, a Russian TV reporter who was at the scene of the blast, said the trolleybus was packed with people going to work in the morning rush hour. He described the scene as 'terrible,' adding that the bus was 'ravaged' and that there were 'bodies everywhere, blood on the snow.' "

Just as after Sunday's explosion, Russian officials are pointing at Chechen rebels who want to create a separate Islamist state in the Caucuses as those who are likely responsible. The AP writes that:

"Officials did not name names and no one has claimed responsibility for either bombing, but they came several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov threatened new attacks against civilian targets in Russia, including the [upcoming] Olympics in Sochi [about 400 miles away].

"Suicide bombings and other terror attacks have rocked Russia for years, but most recently have been confined to the North Caucasus region. The successive attacks in Volgograd signaled that militants may be using the transportation hub as a renewed way of showing their reach outside their restive region."

The AP also reminds readers that Volgograd, formerly called Stalingrad, also may have been targeted since it "serves as an important symbol of Russian pride because of a historic World War II battle in which the Soviets turned the tide against the Nazis."

On Morning Edition, NPR Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff said that Umarov has called February's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, "Satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors. There's actually some history behind that. The alpine events of the Olympics are taking place in an area where the Russian empire declared victory in its conquest of the North Caucuses way back in 1864."

As for security during the Games, Corey said "some security experts are saying that the real danger may lie in other parts of the country — Volgograd could be an example of that."


Edward Snowden
(Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images)
November 03, 2013

No Clemency For Snowden, U.S. Officials Say

Congressional leaders and the White House had one message for Edward Snowden on Sunday: There will be no clemency for illegally leaking documents that have revealed some of the U.S. government's most secret programs.

Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat of California, and her House counterpart, Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, expressed that view on CBS' Face the Nation and White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said pretty much the same on ABC's This Week.

Politico reports on Feinstein and Rogers:

"Feinstein said Snowden had done an 'enormous disservice to our country,' saying he squandered an opportunity to become a legal whistleblower and approach the intelligence committees with his information. Snowden had 'stripped our system,' she said, and should be fully prosecuted.

"And Rogers said he would not accept clemency for committing 'a crime that actually puts soldiers lives at risk in places like Afghanistan,' and the Russians are allowing Snowden to stay in the country in order to gain intelligence.

"Snowden 'took and stole information, he violated his oath, he disclosed classified information that, by the way, has allowed three different terrorist organizations, affiliates of Al Qaeda, to change the way they communicate,' Rogers said."

The New York Times reports that Pfeiffer said the administration had not considered clemency for Snowden and that he should just return to the country and face charges.

Of course, all of this comes just days after Snowden wrote an open letter in which he argued that "speaking the truth is not a crime."

Today, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published "A Manifesto for the Truth," in which Snowden argues that his revelations have spurred much-needed debate in the U.S. about surveillance.

"Instead of causing damage, the usefulness of the new public knowledge for society is now clear because reforms to politics, supervision and laws are being suggested," Snowden wrote, according to an English translation of the piece by Reuters. "Citizens have to fight against the suppression of information about affairs of essential importance for the public. Those who speak the truth are not committing a crime."


Edward Snowden
(AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
October 18, 2013

Snowden Says He Ditched Classified Docs, Before Fleeing To Russia

In an extensive interview with The New York Times, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden says by the time he got to Russia, he had given all his classified files to journalists.

Snowden did that to prevent the Russians from gaining access to secret American documents and "because it wouldn't serve the public interest," he said.

He added that he was familiar with Chinese spying capabilities, so he is also sure that they did not gain access to the encrypted files while he was in Hong Kong.

Snowden's leaks have produced a trickle of major stories that have uncovered details of some of the United States' most secret surveillance programs and have rekindled a major, national debate about their legality. The 30-year-old, who has been called a traitor and a patriot, was granted one-year of asylum in Russia.

The whole New York Times interview is worth a read, so we encourage you to click through. We'll leave you with what Snowden said triggered his decision to leak these top-secret documents:

"Mr. Snowden said he finally decided to act when he discovered a copy of a classified 2009 inspector general's report on the N.S.A.'s warrantless wiretapping program during the Bush administration. He said he found the document through a "dirty word search," which he described as an effort by a systems administrator to check a computer system for things that should not be there in order to delete them and sanitize the system.

"'It was too highly classified to be where it was,' he said of the report. He opened the document to make certain that it did not belong there, and after seeing what it revealed, 'curiosity prevailed,' he said.

"After reading about the program, which skirted the existing surveillance laws, he concluded that it had been illegal, he said. 'If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all,' he said, 'secret powers become tremendously dangerous.'"

The Guardian published that leaked 2009 IG report. Here's a copy (pdf).


Vladimir Putin
(Klimentyev Mikhail /ITAR-TASS /Landov)
September 12, 2013

Challenging Obama, Putin Appeals Directly To Americans On Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unusual and direct appeal to the American people Wednesday night to reject President Obama's calls for possible use of force against Syria, using an op-ed in The New York Times to counter many of the arguments Obama made 24 hours earlier in a speech to the nation.

"The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders," Putin warned. "A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."

Countering Obama's historical references justifying possible "limited" U.S. strikes to damage Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons, Putin painted his own picture of an international community endangered by the use of U.S. military might.

"It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it," wrote Putin. "Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan 'you're either with us or against us.' "

In m any respects, Putin seemed to echo the arguments from critics of Obama's call for military strikes, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Putin also seemed to be playing to the fears many Americans have expressed in polls that show an overwhelming opposition to a military strike on Syria.

In a prime-time address to the nation Tuesday, Obama described the history of chemical weapons dating from World War I and said a failure to act forcefully against Assad could be read by some world leaders as a sign that the international community would turn a blind eye to future use of such weapons.

But Obama also used the speech to announce that he had asked Congress to delay voting on his call for authorization for a military strike to give time for an 11th hour diplomatic solution to work. The deal, which would require Assad to turn over chemical weapons to an international body, has been brokered in part by the Russians.

Putin directly challenged Obama's claim that the use of sarin gas on Damascus suburbs, which killed more than 1,400 civilians on Aug. 21, came directly and inarguably from Assad's forces. Wrote Putin:

"No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored."

And on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Putin warned that a U.S. military strike could strengthen terrorists:

"Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world."

"Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?"

Finally, Putin argued that the use of U.S. military power without international backing actually gives foreign powers an incentive to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

"The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded."

The muscular assault on Obama's credibility, published late Wednesday, included Putin's ironic claim that his working relationship with Obama "is marked by growing trust." It comes just weeks after the White House canceled a meeting with Putin before the G-20 summit, angered by Russia's granting temporary asylum to NSA contractor and leaker Edward Snowden.


September 12, 2013

Shimkus Still Opposed To Strike In Syria, Doesn't Trust Russia

Republican Congressman John Shimkus of Collinsville says he’s still not convinced a military strike against Syria is a good idea.

President Obama has urged Congress to allow him to move forward with an attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who he claims has used chemical weapons against his own people.

But the president now says a Russian initiative could remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria without the use of force, and he’s urging Congress to postpone a vote on military action.

Congressman Shimkus said he's skeptical about a possible diplomatic deal.

"I'm not very hopeful that you can trust a dictator who just gassed his people - and a country that intervenes in the internal affairs of other countries, and invaded a sovereign country of Georgia," he said. "We better be careful who we're trusting."

Shimkus said he questions whether rounding up chemical stockpiles will actually happen.

“So, we gather up 99-percent of them," he said.  "Does this become another Iraq where we think they still have small percentages, and they’re hidden and moved around.”

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Rodney Davis of Taylorville says he doesn't think lawmakers should back U.S. military involvement in Syria.

Davis said he thinks President Obama lacks a clear objective for Syria.


Edward Snowden
(AP Photo/Human Rights Watch, Tanya Lokshina)
July 12, 2013

Snowden Wants To Stay In Russia, Says He Will Stop Leaking

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden wants asylum in Russia and is willing to stop sharing information as a trade-off for such a deal.

That is according to a parliament member who was among a dozen activists and officials to meet with him Friday.

Snowden appeared nervous, but in apparently good health during the meeting behind closed doors in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport where he's been marooned for weeks, Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov told reporters.

A photo attributed to a Human Rights Watch representative who attended the meeting was posted on the Guardian and other websites, the first image to appear of Snowden since the newspaper broke the story of widespread U.S. Internet surveillance based on his leaks.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, told Russian news agencies after the announcement Friday that Russia has not yet received a new bid for asylum from Snowden and that Putin would continue with his insistence that Snowden stop leaking information.

Both Nikonov and Genri Reznik, a lawyer who participated in the meeting, said Snowden was willing to stop leaks.

"He said he was informed of this condition and that he can easily accept it. He does not intend to damage the United States' interests given that he is a patriot of his country," Nikonov said.

Snowden is believed to have been stuck in the transit zone since June 23, when he arrived on a flight from Hong Kong, where he had gone before his revelations were made public. He had been expected to transfer in Moscow to a Cuba-bound flight, but did not get on the plane and had not been seen in public since then.

Snowden made an initial bid for Russian asylum, but Putin said he would have to agree to stop leaking before asylum would be considered. Snowden then withdrew his bid.

Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua recently have offered him asylum, but it is unclear if he could fly to any of those countries from Moscow without passing through airspace of the United States or its allies.

The activists at the meeting included Sergei Nikitin, head of Amnesty International's Russia office, and Tatiana Lokshina, deputy head of the Russian office of Human Rights Watch. Also taken into the meeting room was Russia's presidential human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin.

They came after an email in Snowden's name was sent on Thursday. On Facebook, Lokshina posted the text of the email, which says in part that Snowden wants to make "a brief statement and discussion regarding the next steps forward in my situation."

Hundreds of journalists flocked to the airport, but were kept in a hallway outside the meeting area which was behind a gray door marked "staff only." It was not clear if Snowden would have to come out that door or if he could exit by another route.

The text of the invitation did not directly address the offers of asylum, though it expressed gratitude for asylum offers and says "I hope to travel to each of them." It accuses the United States of "an unlawful campaign ... to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum."

Russia has said it cannot extradite him because by remaining in the transit zone he is technically outside Russian territory.


Edward Snowden
(The Guardian)
June 23, 2013

Snowden Arrives In Moscow From Hong Kong

The US intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden has arrived in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong.

But he is only thought to be in transit before leaving for Venezuela or Ecuador, via Cuba.

The US wanted him extradited from Hong Kong but the government said Washington had failed to meet its requirements.

Mr Snowden, an intelligence contractor, fled to Hong Kong in May after revealing extensive internet and phone surveillance by US intelligence.

The Aeroflot Airbus, flight SU213, landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport at 17:10 local time (13:10 GMT).

Russian media say he was picked up at the airport by either a Venezuelan or Ecuadorean embassy car.

A source at the airline company was quoted as saying that he would fly on to Cuba, and from there to Venezuela. Both countries are believed unlikely to comply with any US extradition request.

It has been suggested he may travel on from Venezuela to Ecuador.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is currently sheltering in the Ecuadorean embassy in London after being granted asylum last year.

Wikileaks issued a statement saying that it has helped to find Mr Snowden "political asylum in a democratic country".

No legal basis'

Mr Snowden's departure from Hong Kong casts further uncertainty over the prospect of him facing justice in the US.

On Saturday, the White House contacted Hong Kong to try to arrange his extradition. But the territory's administration, in a statement issued on Sunday, said the documents submitted by Washington did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law".

As a result, Hong Kong says it requested further information from the US government.

However, the statement goes on: "As the HKSAR Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong."

The US Justice Department has said it will seek cooperation from whichever country Mr Snowden arrives in.

We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel," Nanda Chitre, a spokeswoman for the justice department said in a statement.

University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young expressed surprise at the Hong Kong authorities' decision on extradition.

He said that under local law, a very low threshold is required before a provisional warrant can be put in place.

The US government will wonder why the Hong Kong government feels the surrender paperwork needs to be fully in place before the provisional warrant can be obtained," he said.

Mr Snowden left the US after leaking details of his work as an NSA (National Security Agency) analyst and the extensive US surveillance programme to Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post.

He has been charged in the US with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence.

Each of the charges carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. The complaint is dated 14 June although it was made public only on Friday.

The leaks have led to revelations that the US is systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data under an NSA programme known as Prism.

Mr Snowden said earlier that he had decided to speak out after observing "a continuing litany of lies" from senior officials to Congress.

US officials have since defended the practice of gathering telephone and internet data from private users around the world.

They say Prism cannot be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the US, and that it is supervised by judges.


meteorite damage in Russia
(Oleg Kargapolov/AP)
February 15, 2013

Meteor Strike Injures Hundreds in Russia

A meteor crashing in Russia's Ural mountains has injured at least 950 people, as the shockwave blew out windows and rocked buildings.

Most of those hurt, in the Chelyabinsk region where the meteor fell, suffered cuts and bruises but at least 46 remain in hospital.

A fireball streaked through the clear morning sky, followed by loud bangs.

President Vladimir Putin said he thanked God no big fragments had fallen in populated areas.

A large meteor fragment landed in a lake near Chebarkul, a town in Chelyabinsk region.

The meteor's dramatic passing was witnessed in Yekaterinburg, 200km (125 miles) to the north, and in Kazakhstan, to the south.

"It was quite extraordinary," Chelyabinsk resident Polina Zolotarevskaya told BBC News. "We saw a very bright light and then there was a kind of a track, white and yellow in the sky."

"The explosion was so strong that some windows in our building and in the buildings that are across the road and in the city in general, the windows broke."

Officials say a large meteor partially burned up in the lower atmosphere, resulting in fragments falling earthwards.

Thousands of rescue workers have been dispatched to the area to provide help to the injured, the emergencies ministry said.

The Chelyabinsk region, about 1,500km (930 miles) east of Moscow, is home to many factories, a nuclear power plant and the Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment centre.

'Blinding'

Chelyabinsk's health department said 985 people had sought medical treatment, including 204 children, Russia's Interfax news agency reports. Two people in the town of Kopeysk were in a serious condition, it added.

The governor of Chelyabinsk region, Mikhail Yurevich, was quoted elsewhere as saying 950 people had been hurt, two seriously.

Mr Putin promised "immediate" aid for people affected, saying kindergartens and schools had been damaged, and work disrupted at industrial enterprises.

Many children were at lessons when the meteor fell at around 09:20 (03:20 GMT).

Video posted online showed frightened, screaming youngsters at one Chelyabinsk school, where corridors were littered with broken glass.

Chelyabinsk resident Sergei Serskov told BBC News the city had felt like a "war zone" for 20 to 30 minutes.

"I was in the office when suddenly I saw a really bright flash in the window in front of me," he said.

"Then I smelt fumes. I looked out the window and saw a huge line of smoke, like you get from a plane but many times bigger."

"A few minutes later the window suddenly came open and there was a huge explosion, followed by lots of little explosions."

In Yekaterinburg, 36-year-old resident Viktor Prokofiev was driving to work when he witnessed the event.

"It was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it was day," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"I felt like I was blinded by headlights."

Debris also reportedly fell on the west Siberian region of Tyumen.

Governor Yurevich reported that the meteor had landed in a lake 1km outside Chebarkul, which has a population of 46,000.

A Russian army spokesman said a crater 6m (20ft) wide had been found on the shore of the lake.

Asteroid coincidence

The Russian Academy of Sciences estimates that the meteor weighed about 10 tonnes and entered the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of at least 54,000 km/h (33,000mph).

It would have shattered about 30-50km (18-32 miles) above ground, with most of the meteor burning up.

Scientists have played down suggestions that there is any link between the event in the Urals and 2012 DA14, an asteroid expected to race past the Earth on Friday at a distance of just 27,700km (17,200 miles) - the closest ever predicted for an object of that size.

Prof Alan Fitzsimmons, of the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast, said there was "almost definitely" no connection.

"One reason is that 2012 DA14 is approaching Earth from the south, and this object hit in the northern hemisphere," he told BBC News.

"This is literally a cosmic coincidence, although a spectacular one."

Such meteor strikes are rare in Russia but one is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (1,250m) in Siberia in 1908.

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