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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

News in Brief

Forest Fires Bigger

MOSCOW (AP) -- Forest fires have made this spring one of the most destructive for woodlands, but the situation is improving, a top forestry official said Monday.

"This year's spring has been harsh. The situation is unusual," said Valery Roshchupkin, the deputy natural resources minister who supervises forests.

People were the cause of forest fires 70 percent of the time, either due to negligence or intentionally, and early arrival of warm dry weather aggravated the situation, Roshchupkin said.

As of Sunday, fires destroyed 278,000 hectares of forests, mostly across Siberia and the Far East, he said. Fires continued to rage Monday, but Roshchupkin did not give the size of the area that was ablaze.

He said only that the area decreased by two-thirds in comparison with early May. The amount of fires peaked then because large amounts of people celebrated in the forests during a series of national holidays.

Russia has spent 1.4 billion rubles ($44.7 million) so far this year to fight the fires, a third more than in the same period last year, Roshchupkin said.

Sometimes people light forest fires on purpose, as they do in the Russian Far East to cover up illegal logging, the forestry official said.

Far East residents also burn forests because they believe that it makes wild edible fern grow better, Roshchupkin said. Fern is one of the best selling products to neighboring China, where it is a delicacy.

Litvinenko Trial

MOSCOW (AP) -- A military court will begin a trial in absentia Tuesday of Alexander Litvinenko, a former security agent now living in self-imposed exile in Britain, the military prosecutor's office said.

Litvinenko faces charges of abuse of authority and stealing explosives, said prosecutor spokesman Mikhail Yanenko. The unusual trial, at a military court 70 kilometers south of Moscow, will be closed to the public.

Litvinenko reiterated Monday his insistence that the charges are politically motivated. He recently wrote a book accusing his former colleagues in the Federal Security Service, or FSB, of carrying out a series of apartment house bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people.

Speaking by telephone from London on Monday, Litvinenko offered to testify at his trial if the court agreed to hold a session in London or allow his testimony via video linkup.

Litvinenko's troubles with the FSB began in 1998 when he publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill Boris Berezovsky.

Meanwhile, prosecutors said Monday that they were extending by two months a Tuesday deadline for finishing their investigation against Berezovsky in a case alleging misappropriation of funds from Aeroflot.

Putin to Saudi King

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia is ready to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to settle the Middle East crisis, President Vladimir Putin said in a letter to Saudi King Fahd on Monday.

"As a co-sponsor of the Middle East peace process, Russia is ready for further close interaction with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the goal of stabilizing the situation and renewing negotiations," the letter read, the presidential press service said.

"The situation remains complicated, and new recurrences of confrontation are not ruled out," it said.

Putin stressed the importance of fulfilling UN resolution 1402, which calls for a cease-fire and the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities.

Also Monday, the Foreign Ministry sent special envoy Andrei Vdovin to the Middle East to seek a resumption of negotiations.

Security Officer Killed

MOSCOW (AP) -- A senior intelligence officer in the region of Kalmykia on the Caspian Sea has been shot and killed, security officials said Monday, in the latest violence to hit southern Russia.

Naran Dzhengurov, a department chief with the regional Federal Security Service, was killed Sunday night in the Kalmyk capital Elista, a duty officer with the security service said. He gave no other details.

Interfax reported that Dzhengurov, 34, was shot and stabbed and found dead in his BMW. Itar-Tass said Dzhengurov had been organizing an operation against a notorious criminal gang in the region before he was killed.

Budanov Blasts Lawyers

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Southern Russia (AP) -- Yury Budanov, the tank commander on trial in the murder of an 18-year-old Chechen woman, tried Monday to fire his lawyers, complaining that they were failing to do their job properly because he had already spent two years in jail.

The lawyers asked the judge to ignore Budanov's plea, blaming it on tension he is feeling from spending so long behind bars.

"Budanov's announcement is an emotional utterance," lawyer Alexei Dulimov told the court. "It's his protest against all that's happened around him personally."

Budanov is the first officer to be publicly prosecuted for a crime against a civilian in Chechnya, and his case has attracted steady media attention. The trial began in February 2001 but has been beset by numerous delays.

Judge Viktor Kostin approved another delay Monday, adjourning the trial until next Monday so a new lawyer for the victim's family could study the lengthy case materials.

The judge did not rule on Budanov's request to fire his lawyers but made it clear that if he received a written appeal, the court would have to consider it.

Floes Push Ships

MOSCOW (AP) -- Huge chunks of floating ice knocked dozens of ships from their moorings in the Far North and are dragging them toward the Arctic Ocean, the Emergency Situations Ministry said Monday.

The ice is pushing 28 ships north through the Yana River in the republic of Sakha toward the Arctic Ocean, said Viktor Beltsov, a ministry spokesman. A helicopter has rescued four people from the ships and will evacuate others if the need arises, he said.

One of the drifting vessels has a hole in its hull, but crew members have managed to keep it afloat by pumping out water, Interfax reported. Another ship is a tanker carrying a cargo of crude oil, Beltsov said. The ships are trapped between the ice floes with no room to maneuver, but the Yana River widens as it approaches the Arctic Ocean and the ice should soon spread out, allowing the ships to return to port, he said.