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Russian operatives shadowed Navalny for months before poisoning

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A team of Russian secret services operatives shadowed opposition leader Alexei Navalny across the country for years — including when he was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok in Siberia in August, according to a report by investigative website Bellingcat.

Mr Navalny claimed in a YouTube video responding to the report on Monday that the men “took orders from the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin” and had “tried to kill him several times”.

Using voluminous data from phone calls and flight records obtained on the black market, Bellingcat’s researchers tied the men to a secretive forensic unit of Russia’s FSB, the successor agency to the KGB.

The men began following Mr Navalny, 44, on more than 30 overlapping flights across Russia starting in 2017, when he made an attempt to challenge Mr Putin for president, and tracked him in Novosibirsk and Tomsk in the days leading up to his poisoning, Bellingcat said.

In August, Mr Navalny fell unconscious on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and was later flown to Berlin’s Charité hospital, where he spent several weeks in a coma.

Specialist laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden independently found traces of novichok — the poison used in 2018 against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury — in Mr Navalny’s system. novichok was also detected on a water bottle Mr Navalny’s team took from his hotel room.

After his discharge from hospital last month, Mr Navalny said the use of novichok pointed to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in his poisoning.

The Kremlin and the FSB did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Kremlin has previously said Mr Navalny’s claims were “absolutely groundless and unacceptable”.

Moscow claims it found no traces of toxic substances during the two days Mr Navalny spent in a Siberian hospital and has refused to open a criminal investigation. Mr Putin said last week that “we cannot open criminal cases each time when a person escapes death” and complained that western countries had not allowed Russia to take part in the investigation.

Bellingcat said phone metadata showed eight of the men worked in southwestern Moscow at a specialised FSB facility under the supervision of a military scientist with a background in chemical weapons.

The scientist reported to the head of a forensic laboratory that Soviet and Russian intelligence defectors have said also serves as a front for a poison laboratory.

Bellingcat said flight records showed the men had followed Mr Navalny on 37 separate trips in the last three years, usually flying a day earlier and returning on separate planes to avoid detection.

On one occasion in this period, Mr Navalny said he broke into a cold sweat an hour into a flight and staggered to the bathroom, convinced he was about to die, before his symptoms passed 15 minutes later.

During a beach holiday on the Baltic Sea in July this year, Mr Navalny said his wife Yulia reported similar symptoms before abruptly recovering within an hour. Three of the alleged FSB officers shadowed Mr Navalny on the trip and made several calls to a chemical weapons expert while Ms Navalnaya felt ill, according to Bellingcat.

“Now, after going through all this myself, I understand how bad it can be and how impossible it is to explain what happened,” Mr Navalny said. “Back then I thought it was just some rubbish.”

Mr Navalny said he believed the incidents were dry runs for his poisoning in Tomsk two months later. On that trip, three of the alleged FSB officers followed him across Siberia, where one of them was located near a cell phone tower a short drive away from Mr Navalny’s hotel.

Mr Navalny said he had survived the incident and been able to learn the identities of the people allegedly behind it thanks to the Russian government’s incompetence and corruption.

Bellingcat used similar black market data to expose the Russian military officers who allegedly tried to kill Mr Skripal. The operatives claimed they were tourists who wanted to see the spire of Salisbury’s cathedral.

“The system is totally degrading at every level,” Mr Navalny said. “If, for example, our health system is in such a state that people are dying in hallways, then the same thing is happening to the world of secret operations.”



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China lands spacecraft on Mars

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China has landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars, according to state media, in a further sign of its bold ambitions in the sphere.

The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a poem by Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match the US by successfully landing on the red planet.

The Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia on early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.

The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three hour flight before entering Mars’ atmosphere, according to the newspaper.

The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover is named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.

The probe was launched into space on July 23 by the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in Hainan province, in the south of the country.

The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into the Earth’s orbit late last month.

In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation.

The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.



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Iron ore sinks from record high on concerns over China crackdown

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The scorching rally that propelled the price of steel-making commodity iron ore to a record high came to a shuddering halt on Friday on concerns China will crack down on speculative activity.

The main iron ore futures contract in Singapore fell as much as 14 per cent to $190 a tonne before recovering to $209, while there were also big drops in China where the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange slumped almost 8 per cent.

The sell-off came as the local government in Tangshan, China’s main steel-making city, said it would examine illegal behaviour and suspend production at mills found to be manipulating market prices by spreading rumours and hoarding material, according to reports from Reuters and Bloomberg.

“China’s central government seems to be very concerned about this major input for its steel-intensive economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum. “I think what the pullback reflects is the government trying to rein in prices.”

Line chart of $ per tonne showing Iron ore prices have fallen after a strong rally

Authorities in China have sought to cool hot commodity markets, with Premier Li Keqiang calling this week for stable prices. Iron was trading at $90 a tonne a year ago and hit a record high of $230 this week. Tangshan, which accounts for 14 per cent of China’s steel output, has introduced production curbs as part of a crackdown on pollution.

However, these measures have been slow to take effect as mills in the rest of the country have rushed to crank up output to take advantage of reduced capacity in Tangshan and cash in on record domestic steel prices. A decision to remove the export tax rebate for some steel products on June 1 has also led to other mills increasing production.

As a result, China’s steel production hit a record level in March, with output up 19 per cent year on year to 94m tonnes, according to financial group ANZ. The firm said production was even higher in April, with exports up 20 per cent year on year. That in turn boosted iron ore, which climbed 35 per cent over the past month.

“What the Chinese government is trying to do is incrementally contain the steel market, mindful of the fact they have spent a fortune resurrecting their economy over the past 12 months and they don’t want to kill the recovery,” said Price. “The measures are quite clever.”

Iron ore has led a broad advance in commodity markets over the past year, fanning talk that another “supercycle” — a long period of high prices — has arrived.

That has been a boon for big iron producers such as Anglo-Australian company BHP and its Brazilian rival Vale, which require a price of just $50 a tonne to break even.

However, most analysts think the iron ore market will remain tight and prices elevated for the rest of the year. That view is based on rising steel demand outside China as big economies accelerate and while important producers in Australia are operating at full capacity.

“While the price has been thumped in the past couple of days, demand remains robust, helped by the fantastic margins the steel industry is enjoying,” said Andrew Glass, Singapore-based founder of Avatar Commodities.

Elsewhere, copper was set for its first weekly loss in more than a month amid worries that a tightening of credit in China could hit demand for the metal, used in everything from household goods to electric vehicles. Copper, which started the week at $10,412 a tonne, was trading at $10,245 on Friday.



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Biden says ‘strong reason’ to believe pipeline hackers are in Russia

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Joe Biden said the US government has “strong reason” to believe the hackers behind a massive cyber attack that shut the Colonial petroleum pipeline were based in Russia, as he urged Americans to not panic over temporary fuel shortages.

“We do not believe the Russian government was involved in this attack. But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia. That is where it came from,” the US president said in a speech on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

“We have been in direct communication with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks,” he added, noting he hoped to discuss the issue with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

The 5,500-mile pipeline system has capacity for 2.5m barrels a day of liquid fuels such as petrol diesel and jet fuel, which it carries from Gulf Coast refineries to major hubs in the north-east. The FBI has indicated that the shutdown was caused by a ransomware attack by hacking group DarkSide.

Cyber experts claim Russia tacitly allows ransomware gangs to operate in the country and will not prosecute them. In return, those criminals do not attack Russian companies and can be called upon to share their access to victims’ systems, experts say.

Last month, the US Treasury accused one of Russia’s intelligence services, the FSB, of “cultivating and co-opting” the notorious ransomware group Evil Corp, which has been sanctioned.

The Colonial pipeline — responsible for carrying almost half of the motor fuel used on the US east coast — began the process of fully reopening on Wednesday evening, five days after it was hit by a cyber attack that triggered a spate of panic-buying by motorists across the US south-east.

Biden said the US government expected a “region by region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week”. He urged Americans to avoid panic-buying petrol, and said he had called on state governors and local authorities to keep a lookout for any illegal price gouging by businesses.

“Don’t panic, number one. I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation,” Biden said. “Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days.”

Shortages at filling stations triggered by panic-buying continued on Thursday, with 70 per cent of stations in North Carolina running dry and about half in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, according to GasBuddy, a data provider.

The situation in some major urban hubs was beginning to improve, however. The amount of stations without fuel in Atlanta fell from a peak of 73 per cent overnight to 68 per cent by Thursday afternoon.

Colonial on Thursday morning said it had made “substantial progress” in bringing its operations back online and that all of its markets would begin receiving product by the afternoon.

Prices at the pump have continued to rise. National average petrol prices rose to $3.03 on Thursday, according to the AAA, an automobile association. They crossed the $3 a gallon threshold on Wednesday for the first time since 2014.

Gasoline futures retreated on the news of Colonial’s reopening, as traders anticipated supplies returning to normal. Contracts for June delivery slipped 7 cents to $2.08, their lowest level since April in Thursday afternoon trading.



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