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In Ukraine, war means new war hotels | Russia-Ukraine war

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The war in Ukraine has brought into the homes of a watching world the devastating impact and visceral images of destruction and human misery that have accompanied the Russian invasion. It has received significant media attention, with blanket coverage of developments on many international news channels and a large number of correspondents reporting from the ground. And, once again, hotels have proved a vital component in the media infrastructure in the field.

As the war entered its third week, the book, War Hotels, written by myself and the Lebanese journalist and filmmaker Abdallah El Binni, was published. Building on the research we conducted for the Al Jazeera documentary series of the same name, it provides a detailed account of wartime life within some of those iconic hotels that became bases for the international media, hotels such as the Continental Palace and the Caravelle in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the Hôtel Le Royale/Le Phnom in Phnom Penh, the Europa in Belfast, the Commodore in Beirut, the Al Rasheed and the Palestine in Baghdad and Sarajevo’s “front line hotel”, the Holiday Inn, described by the former BBC foreign correspondent Martin Bell as “the ultimate war hotel”. These hotels, and many others, were part of the vital infrastructure that allowed journalists to function in the cities and countries they were reporting from.

It is well documented that hotels are often repurposed in times of war. They can be militarised as “strategic assets”, be used as prisons or detention centres, serve as spaces where negotiations are undertaken, as operational bases for the media or as shelters for refugees or internally displaced people. They can also be soft targets for armed groups. The sort of hotels we have documented in the book, those utilised by the media during wartime, have become less commonplace in the last decade, for myriad reasons. The media operations conducted from, for example, the Caravelle, the Commodore or the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, continued for sustained periods and often because hotels were the only places that could provide for the needs of journalists or the necessary spaces to host press bureaux.

However, advances in digital and satellite technology allowed journalists to operate more independently without having to locate large steel boxes containing heavy satellite phones or editing machines in hotels. Nor did they necessarily require access to telex machines or international dial phone lines, vital in the pre-digital era, that hotels could often provide. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that hotels are a redundant part of the journalistic infrastructure, though they may be utilised for shorter periods. Indeed, the war in Ukraine, though less than a month old, has not only generated endless stories of human suffering and misery but demonstrated how important the hotel is as part of the infrastructure required to report from warzones and to bear witness to war crimes.

Several armed men stand in the lobby of a hotel looking out through the glass doors and windows to the street beyond
Fighters armed with rifles and rockets in the lobby of Beirut’s Commodore Hotel during the Lebanese Civil War [File: Getty Images]

Hotels, then, still provide vital services to journalists, photojournalists and television crews operating in conflict environments: a semblance – but only a semblance – of security, electricity which can, if the normal supply is cut off, be supported by backup generators; water, heat, food, reasonably reliable WiFi, a place to share information with colleagues and to broadcast from – in essence, a vital working and communications hub. The basements of hotels, in normal times used primarily for storage, are repurposed as underground shelters during times of intense shelling or air raids.

The coverage of the war in Ukraine has far exceeded that of other recent conflicts such as those in Syria or Yemen, both places that were extremely dangerous for foreign reporters to cover. In Ukraine, a significant number of correspondents were in situ weeks before the Russian invasion began. Their numbers have increased since. The majority, though by no means all, were based in Lviv, Kyiv or Dnipro and hotels there have served as important bases. In Kyiv, the Radisson Blu, the Hyatt, the Premier Palace, the Kozatskiy, the Senator, the Khreschatyk, the Intercontinental, and many other smaller hotels have subsequently been utilised as bases for journalists where they can send live reports using portable “Aviwest”, “Dejero Live” or “Live U” broadcasting systems that use Ukraine’s 4G infrastructure – comprising six mobile networks. A smaller number use the ‘Inmarsat BGAN’ portable satellite system, though it is more susceptible to jamming by the military. Some correspondents are not accompanied by a cameraman and instead use their mobile phones to film, edit or stream.

They are compelled, however, to return to their hotels before the 8pm-to-7am curfew imposed by the Ukrainian government and enforced by hotel security teams. From there, journalists can edit footage and send their despatches via “media shuttle” apps, broadcast live from hotel lobbies, rooms or balconies and shelter from shelling in the dark of night in the basement, if necessary.

The embattled staff and management of hotels, probably lesser in number than in peacetime, will endeavour throughout to ensure that the hotel can meet the needs of its guests. Journalists rely on the staff and strong bonds are often forged with them. Indeed, one recurrent theme in the research for the War Hotels book was the sense journalists felt of having abandoned people they had come to know well to their fate without whatever protection, if any, the presence of journalists might have afforded when they were forced to leave a city that was about to fall.

A black and white photograph shows destruction around the Holiday Inn hotel in Sarajevo
The Holiday Inn hotel became home to the media during the siege of Sarajevo [File: Getty Images]

In the current context of the war in Ukraine, the correspondents who decide to remain in barely operational hotels may be subject to similar privations experienced by the journalists who stayed in the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, during the nearly four-year siege of the city by the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The hotel was not just located within siege lines but directly on the most dangerous part of the main artery through the city (which became known as “Sniper Alley”) and about 500 metres from an active front line. Though staying in the Holiday Inn was not without privations, it was not comparable to that of Sarajevo’s citizens. Nevertheless, guests were subject to daily sniper fire and shelling and some rooms were more exposed than others. The hotel “functioned” but there was often no water, a limited supply of food and no heating, which was particularly problematic during the harsh Sarajevo winters.

Of course, hotels are part of the journalistic infrastructure only when their services are required. As the Russian advance slowly grinds westward, air raids, such as that on the Yavoriv International Peacekeeping Centre near the Polish border, and as the encirclement and possible siege of Kyiv creeps ever closer, many journalists and the organisations they work for have decided that the time has come to reluctantly withdraw to more secure parts of Ukraine, assessing that a possible siege of Kyiv may be akin to that of Mariupol or even Grozny during the second Chechen war.

The deaths of Evgeny Sakun, who was killed during an attack on a Kyiv television tower and Viktor Dudar, a Ukrainian reporter killed close to Mykolaiv, marked the first casualties among the press corps. These were soon followed by the American journalist and filmmaker, Brent Renaud, shot dead in Irpin outside Kyiv while on assignment for Time magazine, the Fox News cameraman, Pierre Zakrzewski, producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova, and the wounding of their colleague, Benjamin Hall, are stark reminders of the acute dangers faced by journalists reporting on the ground, particularly when doing so in a conflict in which, while they can move around relatively freely, there are no clear frontlines and where nervous Ukrainian soldiers are on high alert due to fears of Russian saboteurs or incoming fire.

Those journalists who opt to stay in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, and in the hotels that have become their operational bases, may face the same challenges that their older peers experienced elsewhere in hotels in besieged cities, like Sarajevo, or encircled and close to falling, like Phnom Penh: significant exposure to danger, limited or intermittent access to food, water, electricity, heat, internet or fuel and none of the comforts normally associated with hotels.



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What might happen to Ukraine’s Azovstal prisoners of war? | News

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Breaking its recent silence on prisoners of war (POWs), the Red Cross said it has registered “hundreds” of Ukrainian POWs who have left the giant Azovstal steel plant in the southern city of Mariupol after holding out for weeks against besieging Russian forces.

The announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Thursday, which acts as a guardian of the Geneva Conventions and its stated aim to limit “the barbarity of war”, came shortly after Russia’s military said 1,730 Ukrainian troops at the steel plant had surrendered.

Attention now is turning to how those prisoners of war might be treated and what rights they have.

Here is a look at some key questions about POWs in Russia’s nearly three-month-old war on Ukraine:

Who is a prisoner of war?

Article 4 of the third Geneva Convention, which focuses on POWs, defines them as any member of armed forces or militias – including organised resistance movements – in a conflict who “who have fallen into the power of the enemy”.

It also includes non-combatant crew members, war correspondents, and even “inhabitants of a non-occupied territory who, on the approach of the enemy, spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces”.

What rights do POWS have?

The Geneva Conventions set out requirements to ensure that POWs are treated humanely. They include issues such as where they can be held; the relief they should receive, including medical help for wounded ex-fighters; and legal proceedings they might face.

“In this case, the Russian Federation has an entire list of obligations: To treat them humanely, to let the ICRC (have) access to them, to inform the ICRC of their names, to allow them to write to their families, to care for them if they are wounded and sick, to feed them and so on,” said Marco Sassoli, a professor of international law at the University of Geneva.

“But obviously, the detaining power may deprive them of their liberty until the end of the international armed conflict and may hold them – unlike civilians – on their own territories. So they may be brought to Russia,” he said.

Can POWs be put on trial?

Only under certain conditions, notably if an individual fighter is accused of committing one or more war crimes. Such an accusation must be based on published evidence, Sassoli said.

“They can certainly not be punished for having participated in the hostilities, because that’s the privilege of combatants and of prisoners of war,” he said.

Could POWs become part of prisoner exchanges?

The Geneva Conventions do not set rules for prisoner exchanges. In the past, Red Cross intermediaries have helped carry out agreed-upon POW exchanges. Still, much has been made of the insistence by some Russian officials that detained Ukrainian ex-fighters should face trial and should not be included in any prisoner exchanges.

People and relatives of Azov battalion soldiers
People and relatives of Azov battalion soldiers take part in a rally called ‘Save military of Mariupol’ in Kyiv on May 3, 2022 [Sergei Supinsky/ AFP]

Could Russia claim the Azovstal fighters are not entitled to POWs status?

Some countries have tried to sidestep their Geneva Conventions obligations – or simply argue that they are not bound by them. A prominent case was when the US detained hundreds of fighters allegedly linked to groups like al-Qaeda. They were detained as “enemy combatants” at a US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US-led military invasion to topple the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.

Sassoli said there are “all kinds of reasons” why an individual might lose their prisoner of war status. For example, if the fighter “didn’t distinguish themselves from the civilian population” during combat.

“But here, to the best of my knowledge, no one claims that these people [detainees from the Azov Regiment in Mariupol] didn’t wear a uniform, or if they don’t belong to the Ukrainian armed forces,” Sassoli said.

“It’s basically Ukraine who decides who belongs to their armed forces.”

Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly touted the regiment’s role in the armed forces and have celebrated what they call its members’ “heroism” for holding out so long against far-larger Russian forces.

The Azov regiment is part of the national guard – does that matter?

Ukraine and Russia have both accepted an important annex to the Geneva Conventions that broadens the definition of what fighters – militia or otherwise – might be considered as part of the national military force, based in part on whether they follow military commands. As for the Azov Regiment fighters, “there’s no doubt” they are part of Ukraine’s military force, said Sassoli, who was on a three-person team commissioned by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe that travelled to Ukraine in March.

However, Russia has not been fully clear about who is detaining the former Azovstal fighters – Russia itself, or the breakaway pro-Russian areas in Ukraine such as the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” or the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” which could blur such distinctions.

What is the significance of the Red Cross Statement on POWs?

Thursday’s statement was the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 that the ICRC – which plays an often-confidential role to check on prisoners of war – has said anything officially about POWs in the conflict.

“Normally, the ICRC will not tell you how these people are treated, but the ICRC will say whom they visited,” Sassoli said.

“But the ICRC – to the best of my knowledge, until this media release – did not clarify how many people it had access to, on both sides.”

Beyond its communication about the Azovstal fighters, the ICRC has not said whether it has registered other POWs or carried out any visits with POWs on either side of the war.



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Grand jury indicts Buffalo man accused of killing 10 Black people | Gun Violence News

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Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man, livestreamed the attack from a helmet camera, 13 people in total were shot.

Payton Gendron, the white man charged with murdering 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York has appeared briefly in court after a grand jury indicted him on a first-degree murder charge.

Gendron, 18, wore an orange jail uniform and a mask, and was silent throughout the one-minute proceeding on Thursday, attended by some relatives of the victims.

Assistant District Attorney Gary Hackbush said the indictment of Payton Gendron was handed down on Wednesday.

Someone shouted “Payton, you’re a coward!” as he was led out. He is being held in jail without bail.

The latest US racist mass shooting – at a supermarket on Saturday – has revived a national debate about guns, domestic terrorism, hate and the internet’s role in spreading it.

Thirteen people in all were shot at the Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly Black neighbourhood of Buffalo. Authorities are continuing to investigate the possibility of hate crime and terrorism charges.

Gendron, livestreamed the attack from a helmet camera before surrendering to police outside the store. Shortly before the attack, he posted hundreds of pages of writings to online discussion groups where he detailed his plans for the assault and his racist motivation.

Investigators have been examining those documents, which included a private diary he kept on the chat platform Discord.

In New York, prosecutors can charge a defendant with first-degree murder only under special circumstances, including when multiple people are killed in a single incident, like in the Buffalo shooting. The single count against Gendron covered all 10 deaths at the supermarket.

At his initial court appearance last week, Gendron’s court-appointed lawyer entered a plea of “not guilty” on his behalf. Gendron is due back in court on June 9.

The massacre at the Tops supermarket was unsettling even in a nation that has become almost numb to mass shootings. All but two of the 13 people shot during the attack were Black. Gendron’s online writings said he planned the assault after becoming infatuated with white supremacist ideology that he encountered online.

The diary said Gendron planned his attack in secret, with no outside help, but Discord confirmed Wednesday that an invitation to access his private writings was sent to a small group of people about 30 minutes before the assault began.

Some of them accepted the invitation. It was unclear how many read what he had written or logged on to view the assault live. It also was not clear whether anyone tried to alert law enforcement.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia has said investigators were working to obtain, verify and review Gendron’s online postings.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday authorised the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, to investigate social media platforms used by Gendron to determine if they were liable for “providing a platform to plan and promote violence”.

President Joe Biden, in a visit to Buffalo on Tuesday, condemned white nationalists, as well as online platforms, media outlets and political rhetoric he criticised for spreading racist conspiracy theories.

“What happened here is simple and straightforward: terrorism, terrorism, domestic terrorism,” Biden said.



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Not going to fly: Spirit Airlines again rejects JetBlue’s bid | Aviation News

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Spirit shareholders will decide the issue during a June 10 special meeting.

By Bloomberg

Spirit Airlines Inc. rebuffed a hostile $3.3 billion takeover offer from JetBlue Airways Corp., setting the stage for a potentially contentious vote by shareholders on whether to back a JetBlue bid or stand by a pending combination with rival deep discounter Frontier Group Holdings Inc.

Spirit said its board unanimously determined that the JetBlue proposal is not in the best interests of the carrier or its shareholders. The potential transaction “faces substantial regulatory hurdles” and is unlikely to be successfully completed, Spirit said Thursday in a statement. Spirit again recommended shareholders vote in favor of Frontier’s bid.

JetBlue didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Frontier also didn’t immediately respond.

It was the second rejection of a JetBlue bid by Spirit’s board, which stood by Frontier’s $2.9 billion cash-and-stock deal agreed to in February. After an unsuccessful $3.6 billion cash offer, JetBlue on May 16 went hostile, offering the reduced proposal directly to Spirit shareholders in a tender offer.

Spirit shareholders will decide the issue during a June 10 special meeting.

The no-frills carrier stuck by its earlier reasoning that the Frontier offer has a better chance of closing. Market overlap in the eastern US between JetBlue and Spirit could raise antitrust questions at the same time JetBlue battles a federal lawsuit over a business alliance with American Airlines Group Inc.

Spirit shares fell 1.9% to $19.05 as of 7:29 a.m. before regular trading in New York, while JetBlue and Frontier each slipped less than 1%.

With the pursuit of Spirit, JetBlue is seeking a burst of growth it can’t otherwise attain. The rival bid by Frontier would combine similarly focused deep-discounter carriers offering bare-bones low fares while charging for extras like coffee, bottled water and printed boarding passes. Either combination would pass Alaska Air Group Inc. to become the fifth-largest US airline by capacity.

Domestic, Leisure Travel

Spirit’s allure stems in part from an industrywide turn toward domestic markets and leisure travelers — the bread-and-butter of ultra-low-cost airlines — as it’s recovered from a pandemic slump. Bigger carriers have moved more heavily onto that turf amid the slow return of overseas travel demand.

Under the Frontier deal, investors in Miramar, Florida-based Spirit would receive 1.9126 in Frontier stock and $2.13 in cash for each Spirit share. The deal implies a value of $25.83 a share for Spirit. Assumption of net debt and operating lease liabilities push the total value to $6.6 billion. Holders of Denver-based Frontier would own 51.5% of the combined company and name seven of the twelve directors. The agreement includes a $94.2 million breakup fee.

JetBlue has said its offer isn’t subject to approval by its shareholders or to a financing contingency, and includes a $200 million “reverse breakup fee” payable to Spirit if a deal is blocked for antitrust reasons. The proposed deal would generate as much as $700 million in annual synergies, the carrier has said.

A Spirit deal would give JetBlue, hounded by Wall Street analysts for much of its 23-year history over cost creep, access to an organization and management team highly focused on keeping operating expenses in check. JetBlue lost out in its only other takeover attempt when it was outbid by Alaska for Virgin America in 2016.

(Updates with additional details beginning in second paragraph)

–With assistance from Justin Bachman.



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