Paul Vale   |   July 18, 2014    3:41 PM ET

Before the charred wreckage of flight MH17 had even cooled, the usual raft of conspiracy theories regarding the downing of the passenger jet were filling the wantonly suspicious minds of those desperate to believe that history is guided by a nefarious, unseen hand.

One of the most followed theories suggested that the attack was actually aimed at President Putin, based on the fact that the markings of Putin’s jet are similar to that of the Malaysian plane. This notion was given credence by Russia Today, who filed a report suggesting that Putin’s plane flew on the same flight path less than an hour after the attack. Cue frantic speculation that everyone from President Obama to the Rothschild family were the blame for an attempted assassination on the Russian leader that went wrong.

A staple of the suspicious is to claim that everything is a hoax, from the Boston bombings to 9/11 to the shooting at Sandy Hook. Some conspiracy theorists like to link these events together into one grand over-arching theory (that they alone have uncovered... sitting at their computer eating biscuits). Sure enough, the site of unburned passports at the crash site was enough for the internet to cry foul, suggesting that the documentation had been planted, and that the entire tragedy was a false flag event (a clichéd buzzword for the conspiratorial).

This theory was significantly beefed up in an editorial on the website Before It's News: "Adding in the fact that dozens of Malaysian passports were conveniently found at the scene of the crash, we can clearly see an attempted false flag to launch WW3 unfolding. The occult/illuminati connection to this plane crash are laid out in the 2nd video below and are absolutely stunning as the NWO [New World Order] attempts to start WW3 as their grip on power falls apart as the US dollar dies and on the same day TWA Flight 800 was shot down in 1996."

One of the more bonkers theories suggested that the plane that was attacked over Ukraine was actually the missing MH370, the Malaysian aircraft that disappeared over the Indian Ocean earlier this year. How or why is not expanding upon.

The illuminate – yes, the chaps from the Tom Hanks film – also got an airing, with "online truth-finders" suggesting that the number 7 played a role in the crash. It was downed on 17/7, it was a Boeing 777, and it was flight MH17. What does this mean? Everything, from a false flag event (there it is again) to the imminent invasion of aliens.

Yet perhaps the best theory was floated by balding, right–wing mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh, who speculated on his radio show that the crash was in fact a coincidental device to shift media focus away from the crisis on the US-Mexican border. That’s right – 298 people died so that hacks could stop writing about immigration. Limbaugh flowed thus: "I mean, you talk about… I don’t want appear to be callous here, folks, but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border?"

UPDATE:

This from thew HuffPost UK Facebook page:

Message to all CIA, MI6 and MOSSAD trolls: tough luck boys and girls, but your false flag with that Malaysian aircraft is FALLING TO PIECES. Pretty sloppy work, like that coup d'etat in Kiev. Proof is already surfacing on the Internet that the whole thing was STAGED.Those clowns in Kiev made a video of Russians 'discussing' the shooting down of the Malaysian civilian aircraft ONE DAY before it happened. The jokers didnt know that everything which you post on Youtube has a date and time rercorded. Once they realized their mistake, they withdrew the video.Too late. I direct your attention to website 'whatreallyhappened'
SEE ALSO:

  |   July 18, 2014   12:59 PM ET

In an almost incomprehensible twist of fate, an Australian woman who lost her brother in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 learned on Friday that her stepdaughter was on the plane shot down over Ukraine.

Kaylene Mann's brother Rod Burrows and sister-in-law Mary Burrows were onboard flight MH370 when it vanished in March.

On Friday, Mann found out that her stepdaughter, Maree Rizk, was killed along with her husband, Albert and Marie Rizk, and 296 others on MH17, which US intelligence authorities believe was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

malaysia

READ MORE: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: First Pictures Of The Tragic Victims Emerge
Kaylene Mann, of Brisbane, was too distraught to speak publicly on Friday and requested privacy to deal with her latest loss.

"It's just brought everyone, everything back," said Greg Burrows, Mann's brother. "It's just ... ripped our guts again."

Burrows said his family was struggling to understand how they could be struck by such horrible luck on two separate occasions with the same airline.

"She just lost a brother and now a stepdaughter, so..." he said of his sister, his voice trailing off.

In an even more cruel twist, a spokesman for the Rizk family, Ken Grech, said the couple tried to change their flight to avoid a lengthy stopover in Kuala Lumpur,according to the Herald Sun.

Rizk and her husband Albert, of Melbourne, were returning home from a four-week holiday in Europe, said Phil Lithgow, president of the Sunbury Football Club, with which the family was heavily involved.

Albert, a real estate agent, was a member of the club's committee, Maree was a volunteer in the canteen and their son, James, plays on the club's team.

"They were very lovely people," Lithgow said. "You wouldn't hear a bad word about them - very generous with their time in the community, very community-minded, and just really very entertaining people to be with."

The club members planned to wear black armbands and observe a minute of silence to honor the Rizks at their game on Saturday, Lithgow said.

Despite the twin tragedies, Burrows said he holds nothing against Malaysia Airlines.

"Nobody could predict they were going to get shot down," he said. "That was out of their hands."

SEE ALSO:

Flight MH17 was said by eyewitnesses to have "exploded" after it was reportedly shot down by a ground-to-air missile.

In a statement released this morning, Malaysia Airlines said: "With immediate effect, all European flights operated by Malaysia Airlines will be taking alternative routes avoiding the usual route.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was on a scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur went down in eastern Ukraine. Malaysia Airlines confirms that the aircraft did not make a distress call.

"The usual flight route was earlier declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. International Air Transportation Association has stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.

  |   July 18, 2014   11:39 AM ET

Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew said today that his players were "deeply shocked and saddened" after two "dedicated" fans died on board flight MH17 which was shot down over Ukraine.

The Boeing 777 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed on Thursday with 298 people on board.

Football fans John Alder and Liam Sweeney, 28, are believed to have been on their way to watch their beloved team's pre-season tour of New Zealand.

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Liam Sweeney

READ MORE: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: First Pictures Of The Tragic Victims Emerge

Mr Alder, who was in his 60s was apparently known to other fans as The Undertaker because of his tradition of wearing a suit to every game and was known for his mullet-style haircut.

He is thought only to have missed a single match since he started attending in 1973, and follows the team around the world for their away games.

His neighbour, Margaret Bambra, 66, said "he was a lovely guy, never bothering anyone."

"He went to every game, he never missed a match. He was Newcastle-mad," she told the BBC.

Fans' website NUFC.com said: "We're desperately sad to report that they were John Alder and Liam Sweeney.

"Both were well known to away followers, particularly John, whose usual matchday attire led to the affectionate nickname of "The Undertaker".

The club said both men were familiar faces at every United away game and attended reserve and academy matches as well as first-team games.

Pardew said: "Myself and all the players are deeply shocked and saddened by this terrible news.

"We all knew how passionately John and Liam supported the team and the club.

"They were with us just earlier this week for our first pre-season friendly against Oldham and their dedication to travel all the way around the world to support us in New Zealand tells you all you need to know about the passion they had for Newcastle United.

"Our hearts go out to their families and friends."

The club said it will dedicate an area surrounding the Sir Bobby Robson statue for fans to pay their respects to both men, and the manager and players will wear black armbands for both their games against Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix.

Flight MH17 came down between Krasni Luch, in Luhansk region, and Shakhtarsk in the neighbouring region of Donetsk - 50km from the Russia-Ukraine border.

The two sides in Ukraine's civil conflict have accused each other of shooting the jet down with a missile.

SEE ALSO:


  |   July 18, 2014   11:12 AM ET

A nun who died in the MH17 flight crash has had a touching tribute paid to her after she spent her life inspiring students at a boarding school in Australia.

Sister Philomene Tiernan was on board the Malaysian Airlines plane when it was reportedly shot down over the Ukraine-Russia border.

The Catholic nun, who worked at an all-girls boarding school in Australia, was one of the 298 victims who perished on the flight. One of her former students who attended the Kincoppal-Rose Bay school in Sydney has paid a touching tribute, explaining just what it was making "Sister Phil" so inspirational.

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Sister Philomene Tiernan

"[She] was one of those all-too-rare people that made everyone she met feel special," Lucy Thackray wrote in the Daily Mail. "This is undoubtedly the hardest thing I've ever had to write, and I think that’s because I just don’t feel my words can do justice to what an amazing woman she really was.

"Sister Phil was cherished by so many people. Today, I am in complete shock and at a loss for a woman that had such a huge impact on thousands of girls who passed through the big school gates."

SEE ALSO:

Sr Philomene was travelling back from Burgundy in France where she had been visiting Joigny, the place where the order she belonged to, the Society of the Sacred Heart, had been founded.

Hilary Johnston-Croke, the school principal, wrote to parents confirming the loss of her wise and compassionate” colleague, The Australian reported.

"We are devastated by the loss of such a wonderfully kind, wise and compassionate woman who was greatly loved by us all," she wrote.

"This has come as an enormous shock to me and our school community as I am sure it will to all of you."

Johnston-Croke also described Sister Philomene as her mentor: "Phil was a very much loved staff member and friend," she said. "She contributed greatly to our community and she touched the lives of all at KRB in such a positive and meaningful way."

Year 3 to Year 12 students from the school were informed of her death on Friday with a group of the children performing a liturgy for their teacher.

Thackray added: "Sister Phil has lived a meaningful, beautiful life and leaves such a huge mark on the world."

Charlotte Meredith   |   July 18, 2014    9:35 AM ET

Pioneering AIDS doctors, Newcastle United fans, children on their holidays and a Catholic nun. The tragic victims of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 are being increasingly identified as they are mourned by family, friends, and colleagues.

The passenger jet was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur at an altitude of 33,000ft (10,000m) when contact was lost yesterday afternoon and it crashed near the border with Russia in Eastern Ukraine. The 298 people on board are all believed to be dead.

On Friday morning, it emerged that among the 283 passengers and 15 crew on board were nine Britons, 173 Dutch, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, one Canadian and one New Zealander.

The plane was shot down in an "act of terrorism", Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has said, while both pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government have denied shooting the aircraft down.

US authorities said intelligence analysis showed the plane had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, killing all crew and passengers, including three Australian children, aged between eight and 12, who were travelling with their grandfather.

nick norris kids

Mo, Evie and Otis Maslin

Amidst the tragic stories emerging, it has been revealed as many as 100 of the world's most eminent AIDS researchers and experts may have been on the downed plane, heading to a United Nations AIDS conference in Melbourne.

One of the British victims was 49-year-old Glenn Thomas, a media officer at the World Health Organisation who previously worked as a journalist for the BBC and was described as a "wonderful person and a great professional".

As tributes were paid to Mr Thomas today, WHO spokesman Fadela Chaib said: "For the time being we would like to give his family time to grieve. We have lost a wonderful person and a great professional. Our hearts are broken. We are all in shock."

Three infants are among the dead, and up to 80 children are feared dead. The nationalities of 20 passengers have yet to be verified.

Newcastle United football fans John Alder and Liam Sweeney are believed to have been on their way to watch their beloved team's pre-season tour of New Zealand.

malaysia airlines

Liam Sweeney

Mr Alder, who was in his 60s was apparently known to other fans as The Undertaker because of his tradition of wearing a suit to every game and was known for his mullet-style haircut.

He is thought only to have missed a single match since he started attending in 1973, and follows the team around the world for their away games.

Distraught friends are mourning a Leeds University student who is also believed to have been on board flight MH17 which was shot down near the Ukraine-Russia border.

Richard Mayne, a British national from Leicestershire, is thought to have been one of the victims who perished on the Boeing 777.

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Friends have paid tribute to Richard Mayne, thought to have been a student at Leeds University

Ben Pocock, a former Wellsway School pupil who was studying at Loughborough University and believed to be in his early 20s, was also on board Flight MH17, Bristol Post is reporting.

According to his Twitter feed, Mr Pocock had just passed his end of year exams and was heading for Australia.

He tweeted on Monday: "Didn't fail my exams. Still going to Australia."

malaysia ben pocock

A Catholic nun from Sydney was also on board the flight. Sister Philomena Tiernan, was a “much loved” teacher at the Catholic school Kincoppal-Rose Bay in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, and was returning from a retreat in France.

Hilary Johnston-Croke, the school principal, wrote to parents confirming the loss of her wise and compassionate” colleague.

“We are devastated by the loss of such a wonderfully kind, wise and compassionate woman who was greatly loved by us all,” she wrote, The Australian reported.

One young Dutch man posted an Instagram image of his plane tickets and wrote about his excitement in heading overseas before boarding the doomed flight.

Instagram user Regis Crolla a picture of his ticket with the phrase "I'm so excited" before boarding the Boeing 777. He also wrote the words "AMS -> Kuala Lumpur -> Bali". The tickets visible in a photo showed he would travel from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Denpasar on MH17.

In one especially tragic twist, it has been reported that an Australian woman whose brother and sister-in-law died when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished in March has lost her stepdaughter and stepdaughter’s husband, who were aboard the second Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in Ukraine.

Kaylene Mann, of Brisbane, was too distraught to speak publicly on Friday and requested privacy to deal with her latest loss. Mrs Mann was the sister of Rod Burrows, who died along with his wife Mary on Flight MH370, which disappeared over the southern Indian Ocean on March 8.

Mrs Mann’s stepdaughter, Marie Rizk and her stepdaughter’s husband, Albert Rizk, a Melbourne real estate agent, were returning from a month-long holiday in Europe, on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

In an even more cruel twist, a spokesman for the Rizk family, Ken Grech, said the couple tried to change their flight to avoid a lengthy stopover in Kuala Lumpur, the Herald Sun reported.

As the magnitude of the horror is clarified, here we remember the victims of those on board:

SEE ALSO:

Flight MH17 was said by eyewitnesses to have "exploded" after it was reportedly shot down by a ground-to-air missile.

In a statement released this morning, Malaysia Airlines said: "With immediate effect, all European flights operated by Malaysia Airlines will be taking alternative routes avoiding the usual route.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was on a scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur went down in eastern Ukraine. Malaysia Airlines confirms that the aircraft did not make a distress call.

"The usual flight route was earlier declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. International Air Transportation Association has stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.

  |   July 18, 2014    9:24 AM ET

The world has reacted with shock to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Friday.

Answers have been demanded after the jet was "blown out of the sky" but there is still no greater clarification about who is responsible for the loss of 298 lives.

The tragic plane crash in eastern Ukraine, which is reported to have been shot down by a missile, has dominated the front pages of the World's newspapers.

The Netherlands had 173 citizens on board the plane, which took off from Amsterdam. The country's daily paper De Telegraaf boldly declared "Terrorist attack" across its front page, with a picture of the devastation on the ground.

This haunting image on the front of the Dutch paper NRC Next took the most sombre tone to represent the tragic loss of lives.

In Malaysia, The Star reported "MH17 down: 295 feared dead in crash".

In the UK, meanwhile, many publications did not hold back on highlighting who they thought was responsible for the disaster.

SEE ALSO:

Sara C Nelson   |   July 18, 2014    9:19 AM ET

Footage reportedly filmed by a passenger on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 moments before take-off has emerged.

The 14-second clip was uploaded to an Instagram account belonging to Malaysian passenger Md Ali Md Salim, the Star reports.

It shows passengers placing bags in overhead lockers and preparing for take off.

mh17

Salim’s caption to the clip is: “Bismillah… #hatiadasikitgentar (In the name of God... feeling a little bit nervous)”.

The 30-year-old was one of 298 people on board the Boeing 777-200, which was shot down over Ukraine close to the Russian border on Thursday afternoon.

Salim’s elder brother Md Zaki Md Salim said his sibling had been flying home for the holidays after preparing his PhD on Psychology at a university at Amsterdam.

He told Astro Awani he had chatted to his sibling a week earlier on Facebook and that he said he had been planning to buy shoes and trousers for every member of his family.

SEE ALSO:

He said: “He even managed to ask for our sizes for the items to be purchased.”

The plane was shot down by a ground-to-air missile. It is not yet known who fired the weapon however the Ukrainian government has blamed pro-Russian separatists, while the rebels blame the fledgling government in Kiev.

The disappearance of the airliner from the radar screens as it flew over eastern Ukraine prompted immediate allegations and counter-allegations, with the government in Kiev and the separatist rebels blaming each other.

The rebels insisted that they did not have the equipment capable of bringing down an aircraft which was flying at such high altitude at more than 30,000 feet.

However Ukraine's security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that they said showed rebels were responsible. In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler told a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane yesterday.

Politicians Suck on Twitter

Rick Edwards   |   July 18, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Nick Clegg's tweet on Wednesday in which he mocked the Daily Mail was perfect. It was funny and it made a point. It got thousands of retweets and favourites, which confirms that it hit the Twitter sweet spot. Spreadable content is king (or queen) on social media.

A British politician getting it right on social media is, unfortunately, a rarity. On Tuesday I was idly following David Cameron's cabinet reshuffle announcements on Twitter. I enjoyed it. It felt immediate and relevant and the hashtag #reshuffle created a space for the (huge) conversation surrounding the announcements. Basically, it felt very modern. Well done Dave. But there were two glaring mistakes. And I'm not talking about the reshuffle itself, rather the social media practice.

Firstly, he and his team had chosen to use the #reshuffle hashtag. Inexplicably, the PM left the hashtag off several of the announcement tweets. Now, this may seem minor, but the details are all important. I spoke to Rajiv Nathwani, who runs the social media activity of BBC One and BBC Two, and he was amazed about these missing hashtags, because it's such a basic slip-up. Decide on a hashtag for your conversation and then stick to it. By not doing so you risk people missing some of your information and also, you make yourself look a bit silly. And no-one likes it when politicians look silly.

The second mistake is more subtle and has a much wider implication. Although the Twitter announcements of the reshuffle were undoubtedly valuable they were just chunks of information. That's the old media model in action. Top-down politics. Broadcasting information from a single source (DC), to the many (Twitter users). And that's not enough on social media. It is fine to provide information like that but it is then essential to follow it up with meaningful engagement. The days of passive consumption are gone. That's not what people expect any more.

Cameron, or rather whoever it is who Tweets for him (from an iPhone, interestingly), should have set aside 20 minutes after he finished firing out the infochunks™ and replied to some users. Retweeted some comments. That's where the real value of social media lies and he missed a big opportunity. The problem is widespread - a study into the types of tweets that MPs were writing found that only 28.7% were part of conversations - using the @ function. That is far too low. Social networks demand many-to-many-interaction. Social media is about talking and listening. It's about relationships. Of course, the volume of correspondence is overwhelming. It's obviously not possible to respond to every tweet. But people understand that. Well, most people.

The benefits of conversations on Twitter, or whatever other platform, are manifold. Discussion and consultation should be able to provide a steer for policy and decision-making. And perhaps more importantly, being responsive and engaging with the public should help build trust.

I would not for one second say that being a politician on Twitter is a walk in the park. Because it isn't. For starters, the traditional barriers of authority and hierarchy haven't just been lowered - they are non-existent. And what that means is that anyone with a public profile knows that when they post a tweet, any tweet, the first however-many replies will probably be abusive. With horizontal networks like Twitter, there is no avoiding them. A cursory glance at the responses to each of the PM's #reshuffle tweets will illustrate my point.

Politicians and their aides need, first of all, to develop a thick skin, and second of all, to work out how to moderate and manage responses, particularly those that are critical or off-topic or abusive. With abuse it's best to simply ignore it, but it's also vital to distinguish between trolling and dissent/disagreement. Politicians should certainly not block or delete comments simply because someone disagrees with them.

Yesterday I read a document called 'Social Media Guidelines for Parliaments'. I wouldn't recommend it - it's no page-turner. It did, however, give me the idea to compile my own set of guidelines for politicians on Twitter. So pay attention, politicos:

1. USE IT YOURSELF: if you can help it, don't have other people on your team write your tweets. If that's impossible, make it clear when it is you tweeting. For example, Obama always signs off tweets written by him as -bo. Transparency is important.

2. HAVE CONVERSATIONS: as I said before, and will say again - don't just broadcast information. Twitter isn't a loudhailer. Have two-way conversations.

3. UPDATE REGULARLY: there is simply no point in being on a social network if you aren't going to post on it. People won't want to follow you. What would be the point? You don't need to post every day - but when you do, make the most of it and your followers.

4. LINK TO CONSULTATION: when it's impossible to conduct a meaningful discussion with people because of the character or time limitations, provide a link to a consultation page where the discussion can be continued. Consultation pages are the new press releases.

5. BE HUMAN: this might be the most important thing to understand. It's definitely the trickiest to get right. You need to lose a level of formality on social media. You have to show some personality. This also means striking a balance between posting about your public and private life and interests. Again, Obama is a master of this.

Those are my guidelines. I find the human element fascinating. Politicians in the UK regularly post stuff that seems disingenuous or tokenistic. When David Cameron posted a picture of himself on the phone, apparently to Obama, it created a tidal wave of mockery. Similarly when George Osborne posted the tweet of himself working on a speech with a burger and fries on the go. And yet, if Obama had posted that picture of himself on the phone (pretty big if actually, because one of the problems with that particular image is that it served no purpose - if you say you're on the phone, no-one needs visual confirmation of it) or if he'd posted the photo of himself writing a speech and eating a burger, I don't think it would have been subject to ridicule. It's to do with public persona. All of a politicians tweets need to feel real - they need to fit with their public persona. All of Obama's posts suit him. We know that he's funny, so he can get away with being funny. We know that he's a family man, so he can get away with being a bit cutesy. Authenticity is key.

Politicians shouldn't be afraid of social media. They have to embrace it, because if they don't, someone else will. They need look no further than Beppe Grillo for evidence of that. Whatever happens, I strongly believe that social media will transform our democracy for the better.


(NB this blog post was lifted almost wholesale from a talk I gave this week at an event called #tweetsfromthetop - a flattering misnomer - organised by Twitter UK. A few weeks prior, I'd been asked to do my first ever talk. A TEDx run by the Houses of Parliament which you can watch here, if you like. It turns out that talks are like buses.)

Asa Bennett   |   July 17, 2014    5:53 PM ET

Vladimir Putin has brushed aside America and the European Union's toughest sanctions yet against Russia over the mounting unrest in Ukraine, warning that the "aggressive" response would backfire.

The Russian president, speaking in Brazil, said that the new restrictions in response to the four-month uprising by insurgents in the Ukrainian region of Crimea would have a "boomerang" effect that would hurt the United States' own interests.

President Barack Obama unveiled "significant but targeted" restrictions on a handful of companies including Rosneft - 20% owned by oil giant BP - accessing American capital markets, with steps also being taken to prevent senior officials and rebel groups in eastern Ukraine getting hold of funds.

Meanwhile, European leaders agreed a more limited package, imposing asset freezes against around 11 more individuals. But they signalled that measures will be expanded significantly at the end of July to cover "entities and persons" helping to undermine Ukraine's "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence".

Warren Ruhomon, an analyst from Finspreads.com, told the Huffington Post UK that the sanctions had already hit Russia "hard", as Russian stocks slipped to a six-week low and the rouble weakened against the dollar.

“The RTS Index, the benchmark stock index has fallen by 4% whilst the Moscow stock index (MICEX) has slumped 2.9% in trading as investors moved to downsize risk in Russian stocks on the back of the tougher sanctions," he said.

"Of course, the main concern here is that this creates a new wave on uncertainty as to what the implications of these new sanctions will mean, and how the situation could escalate.”

The EU previously hit individual members of Putin's inner circle with travel bans and asset freezes after the Crimea region was annexed, with further sectoral sanctions on the cards if Moscow fails to back down in its stand-off with Ukraine.

The White House has signalled that it is keeping the option in reserve of fully cutting off key Russian economic sectors in case the crisis escalates yet further.

President Obama said: "I've repeatedly made it clear that Russia must halt the flow of weapons and fighters across the border into Ukraine. So far, Russia has failed to take any of the steps that I mentioned."

Sara C Nelson   |   July 17, 2014    4:21 PM ET

Almost 300 people have died including reportedly, nine Britons, after a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was apparently shot down near the Russia - Ukraine border.

Flight MH17 - a Boeing 777-200ER travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur - was in transit over the war-torn region when it disappeared from radar screens.

All 295 people onboard, including 280 passengers and 15 crew members, are believed to have perished.

Graphic images and footage showed a pall of smoke, charred wreckage and bodies at the crash scene in the rebel-held eastern Ukraine village of Grabovo.

debris mh17

These are the first images of aircraft debris from the scene

debris
Flight MH17 is said to have been flying at an altitude of 32,000ft when it was downed

Interfax news agency said the plane came down 20miles (50kms) short of entering Russian airspace.

It "began to drop, afterwards it was found burning on the ground on Ukrainian territory," an unnamed source said.

Reuters quoted emergency service personnel at the scene who said body parts from the plane's passengers are scattered around up to 15km from the crash site, and at least 100 bodies were on the ground.

SEE ALSO:

As the drama unfolded, several other passenger jets were flying through Ukrainian airspace on one of the main routes from Europe to Asia for air traffic.

mh17

The flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur

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The route of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and where it was shot down


The jets path would have seen it flying at high altitude on an intercontinental flight that took it over the crisis hit region of Ukraine, where the authorities have accused Russia-backed separatists of previous attacks on aircraft.

Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor at Ukraine's interior ministry, told Bloomberg it was Ukrainian rebels who shot down the plane.

mh17 malaysia airlines

Officials at the scene of the disaster in the rebel-held eastern Ukraine village of Grabovo

mh17 malaysia airlines

Writing on his Facebook page, Gerashenko claimed the plane had been hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).

Earlier on Thursday the Ukrainian authorities said one of their fighter jets was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane and Ukrainian troops were fired upon by missiles from a village inside Russia.

A similar launcher was reported by journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne on Thursday.

buk missile

In this June 30, 2010 file photo, a Russian Buk-M2 air defence system is displayed at a military show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow

Andrew MacDonald, at defence analysts Vision Gain told HuffPost UK initial reports that pro-Russian rebels were responsible for downing the plane were "quite plausible".

He said: "Earlier today separatist fighters claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack fighter in the area, so the goal may be to create a de-facto no-fly zone in the east of the country in a show of force after their ousting from Slovyansk.

"However, the aircraft will at that stage in its flight will have been cruising at a very high altitude – around 30,000 feet – so would have been well out of range of any shoulder-launched MANPADS weapons you might expect insurgent groups to possess.

"This makes the Ukrainian interior minister’s claims that a BUK self-propelled SAM system was used quite possible, and such a substantial bit of kit would presumably have to have been provided by Russia.

"Whether or not this strike against a civilian airliner is a deliberate act of terrorism or the result of poorly trained, over-enthusiastic irregular forces, is currently unclear."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.

"We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets," he said. "We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible."

The self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," the pro-Russian separatist movement in southeastern Ukraine has denied involvement in the downing of the plane, gazeta.ru reports.

Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that he was "shocked and saddened" by the disaster and confirmed that Whitehall officials were meeting "to establish the facts".

US President Barack Obama said the downed plane "looks like it may be a terrible tragedy" and vowed the US would offer any assistance necessary to determine the cause of the crash.

This afternoon Malaysia Airlines tweeted it had: "lost contact of [sic] of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow."

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Najib Tun Razak tweeted of his shock at the news.

The flight is understood to have been around four-and-a-half hours into its 11-and-a-half hour journey. It took off at 12.14pm from Amsterdam Schipol airport and was due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 6.10am local time.

A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are aware of reports and we are urgently working to establish what has happened."

A Department for Transport spokesman said of the Malaysian Airlines crash: "Flights already airborne are being routed around the area by air traffic control in the region. Pilots around the world have been advised to plan routes that avoid the area by Eurocontrol, the European organisation for the safety of air navigation."

The incident brings tragedy to Malaysia Airlines for the second time this year.

In March, one of its jets disappeared with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board in one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time.

flight tracker

The flight tracker which reportedly shows the flight over Ukraine

Will 'Mrs Miliband' Turn Out To Be Ed's 'Secret Weapon'?

Mehdi Hasan   |   July 17, 2014    1:43 PM ET

At a recent summer drinks party for high-profile Labour supporters, it wasn't Ed Miliband's speech that wowed the crowd. It was his wife's.

"I am trying to change the world through the law," Justine Thornton, aka Mrs Miliband, told the assembled luminaries in the sun-lit courtyard of Mary Ward House in central London.

Her speech was a combination of charming tributes to her husband, passionate declamations on the need to change the way politics is conducted and, of course, the obligatory, self-deprecating anecdotes about life as a political leader's wife. Thornton, a Cambridge-educated barrister, told an amusing story about how she and her husband, only a few weeks ago, had been frantically trying to find a bottle of wine in their kitchen to serve to a surprise house guest, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who just happens to be the prime minister of Denmark (as well as the wife of Labour parliamentary candidate Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil). "It was more Fawlty Towers than Borgen," she deadpanned.

Members of the audience, which included actor Ross Kemp, TV presenter Fiona Phillips and Hollywood director Paul Greengrass, later described her address - delivered, like a true Miliband, without notes - as "inspirational", "from the heart" and "pack[ing] a punch".

It hasn't been easy for Thornton to play the part that is expected of her by politicians and pundits alike. Shortly after Miliband won the leadership of his party, Thornton logged onto Amazon to look for books that might help her adapt to her new role. But all her searches produced were links to DVD box sets of the hit US legal drama, 'The Good Wife'.

The role of politician's wife is "not a role I applied for, darling," she said, turning to grin at her husband who watched on with a mix of awe and pride. Nevertheless, Thornton continued, she intended to be at his side throughout the election campaign, ready to help take on her husband's vast army of doubters, critics and opponents.

Ten months out from the general election, and with Labour's poll lead narrowing, Miliband needs all the assistance he can get - and from every possible quarter. In recent weeks, the Leader of the Opposition has been battered over his image, with polls showing voters think he is "weird" and fellow Labour MPs, such as the former home secretary Alan Johnson, claiming to find little warmth or enthusiasm for him on the doorstep. Then there was the indignity of being photographed trying - and failing - to eat a bacon sandwich for breakfast, as well as his bizarre decision to pose for the cameras alongside a copy of The Sun.

In contrast, standing next to his wife, on the courtyard steps at Mary Ward House, Miliband looked relaxed, personable.. normal. Over the next few months, according to senior Labour sources, we will start to see the confident and self-assured Thornton emerge from the shadows; we will see Ed and Justine together in public, at events, on the campaign trail, in the media. Her chief task, they whisper, will be to humanise him, to anchor him in the "real world", not the "wonk world".

So, could Mrs Miliband be the Labour leader's secret weapon?

Born in 1970 in Manchester but raised in Nottingham, Justine Thornton attended local comprehensive West Bridgford School, where former pupils include the Oscar-nominated British actress Samantha Morton.

Thornton herself had the acting bug and came to public attention as a teenage actor appearing in the Central Television drama 'Hardwicke House'. She played rebellious schoolgirl Erica who called Geoffrey Howe, then Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary, a "fascist" in the pilot show, though the series was soon cancelled after a public outcry over its "comic violence and portrayal of dysfunctional pupils," according to the Daily Telegraph.

justine thornton

A teenaged Thornton played wild child Erica on ITV's 'Hardwicke House'

Thornton also starred in ITV's 'Dramarama', before starting to lose interest in acting. Ferociously intelligent, the teenaged Thornton wanted to focus on her academic career.

She achieved straight As in her maths, English and history A-levels and secured a place at Robinson College, Cambridge, where she read law. Graduating in 1992, Thornton was called to the bar two years later where she met, and struck up a friendship with, Frances Osborne - now the wife of the chancellor - with whom she went backpacking across South America. (“I’m immensely fond of Justine,” Osborne told the Times in 2012, adding that the two women were part of a "common gang" of MPs' spouses.)

In 2004, Thornton met Miliband at a dinner party in London. The Labour Party special adviser, who had only just returned from a two-year sabbatical at Harvard University, struck up a conversation with the sharp, witty and attractive lawyer and the two hit it off. It was a meeting of minds - a friend of Justine's once described to me the latter's excitement after meeting Miliband as "gosh how fascinating, he's really clever" rather than "gosh how handsome".

In a speech to Labour activists in 2013, Thornton herself recalled how it was local Labour activists in Doncaster, from where Miliband was trying to get elected in 2005, who first guessed that she and the Labour candidate had fallen for each other. Thornton said she had travelled up from London to Doncaster to help Miliband set up for a party meeting when an activist said to her: "That's a very long way to come to move chairs, are you sure you're just friends?" According to Thornton, the activist was "clearly very astute and realised before we did I think."

Miliband himself told Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs' in 2013 that the reason he was such a fan of the Robbie Williams song 'Angels' was because he had realised he was in love with Thornton while the pair watched Williams sing it live on stage during the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in July 2005.

robbie williams hyde park 2005

Was it Robbie Williams who brought Ed and Justine together?

For Miliband, a former special adviser to Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, who had been raised in the über-ideological home of a high-profile Marxist academic, Thornton was a breath of fresh air. She brought some much-needed fun and colour to his serious, politics and policy-obsessed life - and, by all accounts, still does.

Friends of the Labour leader's wife speak, for instance, of her "sense of adventure". In 2005, only a few months after she started dating Miliband, Thornton joined a friend and fellow barrister, Quincy Whittaker, on a climb up the 4,167-metre Mount Toubkal in Morocco - the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. Later, when Whitaker suggested they visit India, Thornton proposed they go "via Afghanistan".

Nevertheless, the adventurous Thornton has also had to do much of the heavy lifting in her relationship with Miliband, distracted (obsessed?) as the latter is by the all-consuming worlds of politics and government.

When the pair combined their financial resources to buy their north London townhouse for £1.6million in 2009, it was Thornton's name, and not Miliband's, that went on the property deed.

When their first child Daniel was born in 2009, Thornton registered the birth but wasn't able to add both parents' names because they weren't married. Miliband, it later turned out, was "too busy" to get round to going to the registry office in person and adding his name to the certificate.

He was also, it seems, "too busy" to get married to Thornton, becoming the first unmarried man to become leader of the Labour Party in September 2010.

In May 2011, the couple finally married in a small, very private ceremony, and with an emotional Miliband reducing his new wife to tears by telling her she was his "rock" and "the most beautiful, generous and kind person that I've ever met in my life".

justine miliband

Miliband described Thornton as his "rock" at their wedding in 2011

When the time came for her own speech, Thornton told guests at the wedding: "When I was growing up I thought when I was 30 I would be married and have two kids. It might be a decade late but it was worth the wait for Ed."

It is, in a sense, remarkable that we have so seen so little of the eloquent and charming Thornton over the past four years. She is on the radar of only a handful of journalists; few members of the public would be able to identify her if shown a picture of the Labour leader's wife.

Yet, in an age of 24-hour news channels and live blogs, politicians' spouses tend to find themselves under greater scrutiny than ever before. The high-powered careers of Thornton (environmental barrister), Samantha Cameron (former business executive) and Miriam González Durántez (City lawyer) help explain some of the interest - but equally explain why the wives themselves are so uninterested in playing ball with journalists and prefer to adopt lower profiles.

It is difficult to overstate the importance that Thornton gives to her own job, as a high-flying barrister specialising in environmental law. In an interview with Grazia magazine in 2012, Miliband joked that his wife considers him the third most important thing in her life, behind their two sons and her legal career.

"She works at one of the country's most eminent chambers," says a member of the shadow cabinet, pointing to her position at Thirty Nine Essex Street, where she is believed to earn around £200,000 a year - compared to Miliband's £130,000 salary as leader of the opposition . "She's very impressive."

Leading legal directories such as Chambers & Partners and Legal 500 agree with the shadow minister's assessment, regularly referring to Thornton as, among other things, "very calm, focused and knowledgeable", "extremely bright [and] hardworking", a "first-class" advocate who "shows considerable attention to detail, commitment to the cause and great knowledge".

As the partner of a top politician, however, she has had to pick her cases with care. In March 2009, when Miliband was energy and climate change secretary in the Gordon Brown government, Thornton found herself embroiled in a 'conflict of interest' row when it emerged that she was representing energy company E.ON as it tried to win the right to build a series of coal and nuclear powered stations worth more than £20 billion. A departmental spokesman for Miliband was forced to remind the press that Thornton had not "acted for or against the department and will not receive or accept any such work in the future".

Perhaps, then, it is unfair to say she has put her career ahead of his. Indeed Miliband has said that his wife often jokes with him that she could have had "an easy life married to somebody else but it would have been a less interesting life".

A working mum, Thornton tells friends she values her privacy and, especially, the privacy of her kids - though the Labour leader's wife has, on occasion, agreed to do photo shoots with Daniel, aged 5, and Samuel, aged 3. She is still feeling her way towards an appropriate and - the cynics would say - mutually-beneficial relationship with the the press corps.

justine miliband

The Miliband kids aren't always off limits to the media

Can we expect her to see her pop up on the 'This Morning' couch or on the 'Loose Women' panel in the run-up to the general election next May? Maybe. Or she might, alternatively, decide to turn up on the Andrew Marr show or the Today programme to talk about the environment or the law.

"She will do her own thing, she won't be SamCam or Cherie," says a senior Labour source. "Justine is her own woman."

"I think she could do more media, but not just as a wife," adds a shadow cabinet minister. " She has strong views; she's an independent-minded woman."

The big question, though, is this: will Thornton be able to help Miliband revive his plummeting poll ratings?

According to a member of the Labour leader's inner circle, the comprehensive-educated Thornton, with her non-political, provincial background, "roots him in real life". She "connects Ed to the best part of himself," says the source.

In internal discussions, party strategists are said to refer to Thornton as "the best validator and authenticator" of Miliband and his 'One Nation', pro-'squeezed middle' message.

Those same strategists have secretly planned a bigger role for Thornton in the run-up to the general election - both during the Scottish referendum campaign over the summer and, in particular, at the party's annual conference in Manchester in September.

justine miliband

Will Thornton go from giving a kiss to giving a speech at the next Labour conference?

So far, all three leaders' wives have consistently refused to introduce their husbands at party conference, despite Sarah Brown having famously introduced husband Gordon at the Labour conference in 2009 as "my hero".

At Labour's conference in Brighton in 2013, Miliband told a TV interviewer that Thornton "has got a full-time job.. we are not bringing her on to introduce me at conference, I can assure you of that".

Whether he will make the same assurance this time round is another matter. Speculation is rife amongst some senior Labour figures that Thornton could give a 'game-changing' speech to introduce Miliband at this year's annual conference in September - the last such conference before the general election next May.

If Thornton does decide to speak ahead of Miliband in Manchester, as she did in Mary Ward House, she'll eschew corniness. "That's not Justine's style," says a member of the shadow cabinet. "The [Sarah Brown] 'hero' stuff was awful."

As an indication of how seriously Thornton takes her (rare) public appearances, it is worth recalling the irritated remark she made to a group of Labour supporters in Brighton last year. "All you'll know about me this year is the make of the dress I wear for Ed's speech on Tuesday," she told Young Labour activists. "I am in fact more than a dress."

Sceptics suggest 'upgrading' Thornton's role, and giving her a bigger profile, either at conference or on the campaign trail, will have little effect on the result of the next election. Pollster Peter Kellner, chairman of YouGov, tells me that "wives (and husbands) have little impact on the fortunes of political leaders, in Britain anyway". Kellner adds: "Two wives who had a positive image were, and are, Glenys Kinnock and Sarah Brown. They may have enhanced their husband's standing inside their own party; but as neither of their husbands won an election, it's hard to sustain the argument that they were vote winners."

Perhaps. But even if Thornton's only contribution in the coming months is to help Miliband get permission to be heard - as a normal, middle-class family man, 'rooted in real life', rather than as a weird, out-of-touch wonk, rooted in Westminster - Labour strategists will conclude that it will have been worth it.

And, as Damien Lyons Lowe, of the polling firm Survation, says: "If Ed Miliband presented himself more as a family man, a father, a husband - sending signals of someone in touch with life outside of politics, it's possible this could improve his personal ratings."

It would be a mistake to underestimate Thornton's commitment to the Miliband - and, by extension, Labour - cause. She is, in fact, as quietly ruthless and steely as her husband. During the leadership campaign in 2010, Thornton is reported to have told friends that she was more worried about her partner's political prospects, than his sibling rivalry with David: "Ed has to win it, and then we can sort that out."

Miliband refers to her as his "best counsel", and speaking to friends of both the Labour leader and his wife (then girlfriend) for our biography of him in 2011, my co-author James Macintyre and I discovered just how much of a "rock" Thornton is for Miliband. She advises, supports, bolsters, cheerleads. All of Miliband's big political moves - from his decision to challenge brother David for the party leadership in 2010 to his decision to challenge the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre over the legacy of his late father Ralph in 2013 - have been made only after long and intense discussions with Thornton. ("Life's an adventure," she is said to have replied, when Miliband asked her whether he should run for leader, "and you've got to seize the day.")

One friend of both Ed and Justine has talked about "their strikingly consensual relationship.. It is so equal: neither dominates at all." Other friends who we spoke to for our biography described Thornton as, among other things, "a great political wife, because while everyone is talking she just gets on with things"; a partner who "is engaged with [Miliband's] political life but easily his greatest refuge from it too"; and the person who "encourages him to trust his instincts".

Thornton, according to a shadow minister who has known the couple of several years, is very much on the centre-left and a keen supporter of Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda. "She's a political soulmate," says the shadow minister.

justine miliband

Thornton is the Labour leader's 'political soulmate', says a shadow minister

She also keeps him "grounded", to quote one of Miliband's former girlfriends, and is a reminder to the public that the Labour leader isn't just a professional politician, a wonk who obsesses over inequality and redistribution. He happens to be a proud husband and father too; Miliband has a wife and two kids who love and adore him as a person, not as a politician.

Normality is the keyword. "While Glenys at least was a political activist," Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, once reminded me, "Justine just has a totally normal background."

Will her "normal background" aid and abet the Leader of the Opposition in his mission to convince sceptical voters that he is on their side, understands their concerns and plans to fight on their behalf - if, that is, they decide to put him (and his wife) in Number 10 next May?

Over the next 10 months, Thornton will be on the campaign trail and will be speaking out much more often - regardless of how many critical pieces the the tabloids decide to run on her clothing or her career. "She regards it as a price she has to pay in order for Ed to do what he has to do," says a friend. Another adds: "She is not going to buckle no matter how difficult this gets."

Unlike a growing number of Labour MPs, Thornton believes in her husband - and believes he will win. She is convincned - as evidenced by her occasional public statements, as well as from the testimony of her friends and her husband's friends - that only Miliband can bring about radical change in the way the country is run.

Wrapping up her speech at Mary Ward House, Thornton said she and her husband wanted to make the next election about the need for "decency and principles in public life".

"That's why I am up for a fight," she told the crowd, "however nasty, however brutal."

Mehdi Hasan   |   July 17, 2014   12:58 AM ET

The five things you need to know on Thursday 17 July 2014...

1) LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE

You can tell a general election is around the corner. From the Times:

"Labour accused David Cameron of lying about its tax plans after he claimed that the party would increase taxes on the middle class if Ed Miliband won the general election. Speaking at prime minister's questions yesterday, Mr Cameron repeated comments made in an LBC radio interview this week by Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, when she said that people on 'middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes'. Mr Miliband hit back, saying that the prime minister's decision to pounce on Ms Harman's words was 'totally desperate stuff'. A Labour party spokesman added later that Mr Cameron had 'twisted her words'."

Harman's point, which she later reiterated in a letter to the PM, was that the system of progressive taxation that we have in this country, in which people pay more tax as they earn more money, is fundamentally fair and correct. Are the Tories saying they don't agree with that? Are they going to propose a flat tax instead? I think not.

The Mirror reports:

"Ms Harman later wrote to Mr Cameron to accuse him of undermining public trust in politics. She said: 'This is not true. It is a lie.' The MP included a full transcript of remarks she made on an LBC radio phone-in on Monday night. She added: 'It is utterly clear this is not a call for higher taxes, but a defence of a system which has commanded wide support, in which people on middle incomes contribute more than people on lower incomes.'"

Quoting people out of context is pretty indefensible - doing it at PMQs when you're the prime minister is even worse. Check out my colleague Asa Bennett's collection of five Cameron and Osborne out of context quotes which seem to show they agree with Harman on tax.

2) 'UNBELIEVABLE HYPOCRISY'

You'll never believe it but Nick Clegg has done a U-turn. Yes, really. On the bedroom tax - sorry, spare room subsidy. His 'axeman', the Lib Dem chief secretary of the Treasury Danny Alexander has penned a piece for the Mirror:

"Our revised proposal is that new tenants in the social rented sector would receive housing benefit based on the number of rooms they need. But those already in the social rented sector would only see a reduction in benefit if they are offered a suitable smaller home and, crucially, turn it down. Disabled adults should be treated the same as disabled children, by permanently exempting them."

Labour have accused the Lib Dems of "unbelievable hypocrisy". Meanwhile, the Times notes:

"The move, which will isolate the ­Tories on the issue, comes just a few days after the Lib Dems dropped to 6 per cent in YouGov polling. It also came a day after the publication of an internal government review that showed almost 60 per cent of households affected by the housing benefit changes were in arrears as a ­result and a shortage of smaller properties meant just 4.5 per cent of tenants had been able to downsize to avoid it."

3) MR MILIBAND GOES TO WASHINGTON

Guess who's got a meeting with the Leader Of The Free World? Go on, guess? Yep, Edward Samuel Miliband. Who says hiring David Axelrod was a waste of money? From the Guardian:

"Ed Miliband is aiming to stage a high-stakes visit to Washington next week that is expected to include a drop-in meeting with Barack Obama, the same level of courtesy offered to David Cameron in 2008 when the then-leader of the opposition met Obama's predecessor, George Bush. The meeting will not be Miliband's first encounter with the US president but the visit to Washington will be his first in his official capacity as leader of the opposition. It is expected to take place on Monday and will include a speech to a Washington thinktank the Centre for American Progress highlighting the confluence in Labour and Democrat thinking about the broken link between economic growth and shared prosperity."

The Guardian uses the phrase 'drop-in meeting', the BBC goes with 'brush by', i.e. an informal, supposedly 'chance' encounter with the president in a corridor of the White House, or maybe in the midst of a formal meeting between between Miliband and one of Obama's aides. The US president can't be seen to be interfering too much in the domestic political debate in the UK, especially nine months out from a general election.

Remember also: despite their political differences, Barry and Dave are supposed to be pals.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of Sky News presenter Adam Boulton swallowing a fly live on air, outside Number 10 Downing Street. You know you want to.

4) EURO VETOES

Could Lord Hill, the rather unknown Tory peer picked by David Cameron to be his candidate for EU commissioner, be about to be blocked because of his supposedly eurosceptic views? The Times reports that "the president of the European parliament launched an outspoken attack on the former lobbyist and self-declared Eurosceptic, warning that he could be blocked when MEPs vet candidates in September. 'I cannot imagine Hill — whose views, in as far as he’s got any, are radically anti-European — getting a majority in the European parliament,' Martin Shultz, a German Social Democrat, said."

Oh dear. Meanwhile, the Tories aren't wasting any time in terms of a post-reshuffle challenge to the hated European Convention on Human Rights and the court in Strasbourg that enforces it - the BBC has this exclusive:

"The Conservatives have drawn up plans designed to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights and to reassert the sovereignty of Parliament. David Cameron has been presented with the proposals that would mean Parliament decided what constitutes a breach of human rights. Strasbourg rulings on issues like votes for prisoners have angered many Tories. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, sacked in the reshuffle, is thought to have warned against the planned change."

5) 'THEY ARE ONLY CHILDREN'

Anyone who has any doubts about whether the Israeli military is committing war crimes in Gaza should have a read of the gut-wrenching, eyewitness account filed by the Guardian and Observer's Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont:

"The first projectile hit the sea wall of Gaza City's little harbour just after four o'clock. As the smoke from the explosion thinned, four figures could be seen running, ragged silhouettes, legs pumping furiously along the wall. Even from a distance of 200 metres, it was obvious that three of them were children... the second shell hit the beach, those firing apparently adjusting their fire to target the fleeing survivors. As it exploded, journalists standing by the terrace wall shouted: 'They are only children.' In the space of 40 seconds, four boys who had been playing hide and seek among fishermen's shacks on the wall were dead. They were aged between seven and 11; two were named Mohammad, one Zakaria and the youngest Ahed. All were members of the extended Bakr family."

On a side note, my latest column is on the subject of the west's complicity in Israel's war crimes against the Palestinian people and why it matters.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 36
Conservatives 33
Ukip 13
Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 32.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, says: "Crosby’s growing power did for ‘toxic’ Gove."

Martin Kettle, writing in the Guardian, says: "An untested and unready Ed Miliband faces Cameron’s redrawn Tory ranks."

Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in the Independent, says: "Little that the Prime Minister says about the reshuffle bears scrutiny."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com), Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com) or Asa Bennett (asa.bennett@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol@huffpostukpol

Shamefully, the Western World Has Failed the People of Syria

James Snell   |   July 14, 2014   12:50 AM ET

Despite the existence of other international crises, the civil war in Syria and its effects remain. Three years on from the beginning of protests against the dictatorial rule of President Assad, the original struggle for greater rights in a tyrannical state has morphed into an armed revolution.

The situation in Syria has been called the 'greatest humanitarian crisis of our time' by the United Nations. It is my belief that this miserable result is due, in whole or in part, to the inaction of Western governments - both in failing to intervene in order to remove Bashar al-Assad, a murderous tyrant who is perfectly willing to destroy his country in order to save the regime that rules over it, and in the lack of humanitarian assistance provided to the Syrian people after Britain, France, the United States and their allies meekly gave up on combating the brutality last August.

First, the lamentable lack of action from European nations towards stopping the horrors of the Syrian war, including the backing down of David Cameron, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande in the aftermath of the regime's chemical weapons attacks on Ghouta last summer, inevitably prolonged the crisis.

After the Obama administration grandly called for a 'red line' over chemical weapons usage, it seemed as if the mechanised horror of such weaponry could be contained. As it happened, this pronouncement was utterly empty. Assad's forces, backed by the UN veto, and covert military aid of a supportive Russia, publicly stepped over the line with impunity. And not just once. Der Spiegel exhaustively documented other instances of the use of chemical weapons. Tom Rogan in the National Review drew poignant attention to the use of chlorine gas by the regime.

The Assad government, happy to rid itself of its declared chemical arsenal, has continued to brutalise the population by other means. This is bad news for President Obama and his allies. Even an otherwise congratulatory New York Times leader acknowledges that 'there are still questions about whether Syria retains hidden weapons and related technologies'.

However, after a sham deal, which included the foundation of 'peace talks' in Geneva that everyone agrees are ineffectual, Assad was essentially left alone to perpetrate his crimes.

After the sound and fury of the build-up, silence reigned. All it took was a single parliamentary vote, and the leaders of the most powerful nations of the world gave up the pretence of caring about the fate of Syria and its people. Not when their electoral changes might be affected, anyway. And the fact that intervention was so unpopular also speaks volumes. It speaks of a populist mindset close to doctrinal isolationism, and the inherent national selfishness that such a mood creates.

In the aftermath of the failure of Britain and her allies to intervene, there has been another injustice. The fate of Syrian refugees is one of vital importance and powerful emotive impact, and yet the British government in particular has reacted very poorly to this tragedy. Having failed to win the war, Western governments, through either calculated callousness or administrative incompetence, are rapidly losing the peace.

In Britain, Ukip, a party which ran a not inconspicuous campaign against any intervention in Syria, has also made its opinions known on this most vital of humanitarian disasters. And those opinions are not good. After Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, appeared to support giving refuge in Britain to some of the world's most needy, his party rebelled. Eventually, members and activists forced him into pledging to accept only Christians fleeing the country.

Happily, such naked discrimination met with criticism from across the British political spectrum; but outrage on this scale helped no one, and the number of refugees taken in by Britain and other European nations remains distressingly low. In Britain, only 24 Syrian refugees have been allowed to enter the country. To say that the government is dragging its feet, as refugee groups and the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, have done, is a grotesque understatement.

James Bloodworth, a British journalist, summed up the appalling state of the UK government's response.

There's a good chance that Syria will, for future generations, be considered the humanitarian crisis of our time. As such, the scale of the tragedy requires a much greater response than the callous and disinterested one shown thus far by the government.
But that failure is not just confined to the UK. France, a country that like Britain backed out of dealing with Assad militarily last year, agreed to accommodate only 500 Syrians; this from a total refugee population of over two million. The Hollande government is currently under pressure from organisations such as Amnesty International to take its fair share of Syrians. But regardless of whether the President caves in, his initial unwillingness to allow the victims of terror and intimidation and brutality shelter in his nation ought to be held against him from now on.

The failure of Western governments is particularly obvious - and shaming - when viewed in relation to the loads borne by the nations bordering Syria. In Iraq, a country that has more than its own share of problems at present, over 200,000 displaced Syrians find shelter. In Turkey the number is over 650,000.

This numerical failure is also a moral one. Having failed to combat the power of a despotic ruler who is busily engaged in hammering his opponents into the ground at any cost, the West now refuses to recognise, and act on, its own ethical obligations.

This dual failure points to a broader climate of non-interventionism and isolationism - which are two separate but interlocking phenomena. Both philosophies contain elements of the parochial and the selfish. Like it or not, those ideas - aided by the recent successes of the European far-right - are now closer to government than ever. Syria has already been abandoned to the brutality of a tyrant. To effectively mete out the same fate to those fleeing the conflict does the West, and the wider world, an enormous disservice.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor for The Libertarian

Obama's Diplomatic Coalition of the Willing - Or Else!

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   July 14, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Emperor Nero was accused of playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

This analogy may be applied to our world leaders today as the crisis in the Middle-East has the potential to spiral out of control into the next world war.

Although it is true that President Obama has had more than than his fair share of international crises to deal with, it is also true that no president can pick their challenges.

President Obama started his first term with two wars - Iraq and Afghanistan, a financial meltdown to rival the Great Depression, the "Arab Spring-Winter" - the overthrow of several governments in that region and a civil war brewing in Syria.

Following all that up, in his second term Obama faced the Syria "line in the sand" chemical weapons challenge, Benghazi, an Iran nuclear weapons stalemate and Russian aggression in Ukraine along with the un-answered invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Even with all of these world events taking place beyond America's borders, what is unquestionably true is that the American people today are much less interested in the rest of the world and far more interested in their own personal well being.

Perhaps we as Americans can not see beyond our own borders unless events somehow threaten the integrity of those borders and our own way of life.

It may be as sad as it is true that the average American does not understand that their personal safety and financial well being are directly affected by world events and they simply cannot be ignored.

An all out war in the Middle-East, creating more failed states, will not only affect the US economy, it is also likely to pose a real safety risk to US citizens both here and abroad as terrorists entities like ISIS pledge to annihilate those who do not follow their path to salvation.

Like it or not America is still an indispensable factor when it comes to world leadership and keeping world peace.

To be fair, it is not America or its leaders alone who seem to be less interested in dealing with these international crises.

The leaders of the EU have not exactly rushed in to fill the vacuum either.

When it came time for them to show real leadership and join the US to impose the toughest sanctions against Russia for "annexing" Crimea - none of them seemed ready to handle the economic or political pain that such a move might cause back home.

As a result weak sanctions were the order of the day and Putin's aggression went unanswered.

The 100th Anniversary of World War I prompting revised interest for anyone paying attention to the causes of that war, should give all these world leaders some pause - since their failure to act now could put them all in a far worse position later.

"Kicking the can down the road" for the next hapless president or prime minister to deal with is simply not an option.

The Middle-East has never been so explosive.

Every country in the region is facing serious problems.

On top of the war raging in Syria, Egypt who was once a reliable power broker in the peace process, is now struggling to stabilize itself after overthrowing a democratically elected Muslim president.

Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are all having their own immigration border issues as fleeing refugees from Syria and other neighboring countries stream in causing them further destabilization.

And Israel of course is threatened by more instability than ever both within and outside its own "established borders".

Hamas seems to have decided that the world will do nothing based on the Syria situation and they are taking advantage of this lack of world leadership to push their agenda and put Israel to the test.

Up till now the "Iron Dome" protection system has given Israel the time and space it has needed to avoid taking the most extreme actions in response to the constant shelling of its towns and cities by Hamas.

However the actions they have taken in self defense - and the related collateral damage to civilians in Gaza - have had the unintended consequence of inspiring Muslims to join Hamas' cause.

This situation cannot last. If "Iron Dome" fails to protect Israelis just once then all bets are off.

There is also no hope of a long term solution since the peace talks have collapsed with no clear plan to restart them.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, who all border this mess, are also keeping a watchful eye on these events since this area is ripe for a proxy war between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The US and its allies have avoided direct military involvement in Syria allowing it to collapse into a failed state and a haven for terrorists.

A direct result of this failure to act in Syria is that ISIS has taken over parts of both Syria and Iraq and they now threaten to redraw the map of the Middle-East unless they are stopped.

It is an election year in the US and the importance of all of this as it effects the US response cannot be underestimated.

Although President Obama and his team might like to focus on domestic issues since the Mid-Term elections are only about four months away, the world is simply not cooperating.

Support of Israel is a political cornerstone of any successful US political campaign -whether you are Republican or Democrat.

It is clear that at this time military involvement in yet another conflict is a sure political loser.

This puts both President Obama and his Republican challengers in a tough spot, since this situation seems to be a real "no win" no matter what they do here.

Unless of course, Obama can convince Cameron, Merkel, Hollande and the other EU leaders along with China, Japan and Russia to put their domestic political issues aside, speak with one strong voice and join a Diplomatic Coalition of the Willing to quell this brewing storm before it is too late.