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Sanctioned Oligarch’s Presence Adds Intrigue to Ukraine-Russia Talks

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LVIV, Ukraine — When diplomats from Russia and Ukraine met for talks in the 19th-century Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul on Tuesday, their host urged the antagonists to reach a cease-fire “to the benefit of everyone.”

Those words from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey may have resonated in particular with a Russian oligarch in the room, mysteriously watching from a front-row seat.

The oligarch, Roman Abramovich, the 55-year-old owner of Britain’s storied Chelsea Football Club soccer team, is not a member of the Russian side of the talks. He has been sanctioned by the British government — but, curiously, not the United States — for ties with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who started the war.

Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has said that oligarchs like Mr. Abramovich should “hang their heads in shame.” Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, told the BBC that he had “no idea what Mr. Abramovich is claiming or doing” at the talks. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, would not specify what Mr. Abramovich was doing but said Moscow had “approved” his participation to coordinate between both sides.

The unknowns of why he was in the room only added intrigue to the talks, which were reported to have made the first significant progress since the war began more than a month ago. And in a further hint of mystery, news emerged that Mr. Abramovich had been entangled in a bizarre episode, earlier this month, concerning whether he and members of the Ukrainian negotiating team were poisoned.

The oligarch, who did not comment on why he was attending the talks, appeared to be trying to present himself to the world as an earnest and trusted conduit between Kyiv and Moscow. Critics of Mr. Abramovich suggested he was grandstanding for publicity, part of an effort to save his empire.

Still, Mr. Abramovich has gotten close to a key member of Ukraine’s negotiating team, Rustem Umerov, according to a person familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are delicate. Mr. Umerov, this person said, believes that Mr. Abramovich wants to see the war stopped.

By the time Mr. Abramovich had been sanctioned by the British government, he had been playing a quiet role in the peace process. He was acknowledged as part of a public round of negotiations in Belarus that began four days into the war. But now reports have emerged of Mr. Abramovich’s participation in a less publicized track, mediated by Turkey, which had him shuttling between Kyiv, Moscow and Istanbul.

His role included personally delivering a handwritten letter by President Volodomyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressing an outline of his terms for an agreement to Mr. Putin, according to a report from The Sunday Times.

Of all the rich businessmen around the Russian president, Mr. Abramovich, a Russian-Portuguese-Israeli multibillionaire, stands alone in his ability to combine both a reputation for high-level Kremlin connections and a celebrity profile — if not status and acceptance — in the capitals of the West.

Mr. Abramovich started working in business in the late 1980s, buying and selling dolls, chocolates, cigarettes, and more. He began to amass his fortune in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he and a business partner persuaded the Russian government to sell them the state-run oil company Sibneft for about $200 million. In 2005, while he was serving as the governor of Russia’s resource-rich northeastern province of Chukotka, he sold his stake back to the government for $11.9 billion.

As Mr. Putin brought businessmen to heel by jailing and intimidating them, Mr. Abramovich was among the billionaires who managed to remain on good terms with the Kremlin. He used his wealth to buy luxury properties in New York, London, Tel Aviv, St. Barts and Aspen, Colorado, as well as two superyachts, multiple Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin sports cars, and a private Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet — now grounded because of the sanctions on him.

He has also extensively funded the Moscow art scene, including as co-founder of the Garage Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow, and played a role on the board of the famed Bolshoi Theater.

Last year, his net worth was estimated by Forbes at $14.5 billion, making him one of Israel’s richest citizens and the 11th richest Russian. Much of it may have evaporated because of the onerous sanctions. Britain has imposed such tight restrictions on Mr. Abramovich’s Chelsea club that some say they amount to government control.

On the eve of the Ukraine-Russia discussions in Istanbul, reports emerged in The Wall Street Journal and in Bellingcat, an investigative journalism group, that Mr. Abramovich, Mr. Umerov and another Russian businessman had suffered symptoms associated with poisoning between the night of March 3 and the morning of March 4 after a round of consultations.

According to Bellingcat, the participants all drank only water and ate chocolate. Negotiations went until 10 p.m. that night in Kyiv, and overnight the men began experiencing the symptoms, including impaired vision and peeling skin.

As they drove from Kyiv to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv — en route, via Poland, to the next round of negotiations in Turkey — the team enlisted the help of Bellingcat’s executive director, Christo Grozev, who had extensively researched the poisoning of the Russian opposition politician, Aleksei A. Navalny.

The symptoms were severe enough that Mr. Abramovich asked the scientist examining him, “Are we dying?” one person who was present told The New York Times.

The experts who examined the men said “the dosage and type of toxin used was likely insufficient to cause life-threatening damage, and most likely was intended to scare the victims as opposed to cause permanent damage,” according to a series of Twitter postings from Bellingcat. “The victims said they were not aware of who might have had an interest in an attack,” they said.

Some Western officials sought to tamp down concerns over possible poisoning, suggesting that “environmental factors” were responsible.

“The evidence is rather sketchy and in a difficult place,” one Western official said.

Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Tuesday that the reports of poisoning were part of an “information war.”

Besides the British sanctions on him, Mr. Abramovich also has come under European Union and Canadian sanctions. Reports have emerged of Mr. Zelensky asking President Biden to refrain from sanctioning Mr. Abramovich because of the role he has been playing.

“This is a combined operation — to help him and to help the Kremlin,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a Moscow-born Israeli political analyst, former lawmaker, and expert on the Russian Israeli community.

“Moscow thinks they can use him,” she said, “and the West also thinks they can use him.”

The fact that he is not part of Russia’s official delegation, she said, gave him more leeway to reach a compromise.

“It’s the story of good cop, bad cop — there is the official delegation, and Abramovich has a little more freedom. He’s another arm of the Kremlin — not an official arm, but a softer one.”

For Chelsea supporters, details of Mr. Abramovich’s role as an apparent intermediary has only led to further confusion about how the billionaire oligarch should be regarded. “The fact he’s trying to broker peace does put a slightly different slant on things than how they appeared to be two or three weeks ago,” said Tim Rolls, a member of the Chelsea Supporters Trust. “I think some think he’s been hard done by but it’s impossible to know what the situation is.”

What is not in doubt is the admiration for Mr. Abramovich that many Chelsea fans still have for the man who invested heavily in their team and took it to new heights.

“I think it’s impossible for a layman like me to know exactly how close he is to Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Rolls said. “For me and supporters it’s been tremendous. He’s taken us to the next level, to becoming one of the top six or top eight teams in Europe.”

Tariq Panja and Mark Landler contributed reporting from London, Patrick Kingsley from Tel Aviv, and David D. Kirkpatrick from New York.





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Jailing of trans rapist Isla Bryson is ‘shambles’, says prison chief

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Sarah Armstrong, a professor of criminology at Glasgow University, said she was surprised that concern over the safety of women in prison was “focused on this one, very exceptional case” given the “scathing” reports from the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture after previous visits to Cornton Vale.



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Protests reach Haiti airport and Prime Minister's residence over police killings

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Protesters and some police officers protested at the official residence of Haiti’s prime minister in the capital Port-au-Prince on Thursday, decrying recent killings of police, according to one of his advisors.



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Actor Julian Sands latest hiker to encounter disaster near popular LA mountain, expert weighs in on dangers

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Several hikers have recently been killed or disappeared around a popular southern California peak – including missing actor Julian Sands – which should be a warning for would-be adventurers, experts said.

Mount Baldy’s breathtaking views come with real danger that can quickly turn a winter alpine trek into a nightmare, hiking expert Cris Hazzard told Fox News Digital.

“When there’s snow and ice on the mountains, it just takes one misstep to slide hundreds of feet down the slopes,” said Hazzard, of HikingGuy.com. People die on Mount Baldy every winter “like clockwork,” he added.

“Even if you survive, you could be trapped in a spot where no one can see you,” Hazzard said.

ACTOR JULIAN SANDS IDENTIFIED AS MISSING HIKER IN CALIFORNIA

Rescue efforts are still underway for British actor Julian Sands, who never returned to his car from a hike in the Angeles National Forest.

Rescue efforts are still underway for British actor Julian Sands, who never returned to his car from a hike in the Angeles National Forest.
(Franco Origlia)

Mount Baldy, in the Angeles National Forest about 50 miles west of downtown L.A., is a magnet for hikers who travel the alpine forests and double switchbacks around its 10,000-foot summit. On a clear day, visitors to the summit can see all the way to Catalina Island and the Pacific Ocean, Hazzard said. 

Sands, 65, became the latest hiker to go missing there nearly two weeks ago and he remained unaccounted for as of Thursday.

While the search for Sands continued Tuesday, 75-year-old Jin Chung was rescued after he never returned from a hike days earlier. The missing cases both came after a woman was killed when she slipped down a roughly 500-foot icy hillside.

The treacherous icy hills, Hazzard told Fox News Digital, are what usually get hikers into trouble in that part of the Angeles National Forest.

IPHONE EMERGENCY SERVICE HELPS RESCUE PAIR AFTER CRASH IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FOREST

“Slipping on a narrow trail when hiking up a mountain in the summer usually means a bruised ego and a scrape or two,” Hazzard said. “But one slip or misstep on that same stretch of trail in the winter can get you into real trouble.”

Some hikers “don’t have the experience” – or the gear – for the mountain’s winter terrain, he added. 

“It’s easy to get lost when the trail is covered in snow or maybe even blazed incorrectly by the person before you,” he said.

“Climbing Mount Baldy right now should be done with at least a helmet, crampons, and ice axe and if you have yet to practice using tools like an ice axe, it’s just extra weight you’re carrying,” he added.

While there are areas around Mount Baldy that are more dangerous than others, including the Devil’s Backbone and the climb to Cucamonga Peak, Hazzard said trails with a lower profile can be just as dangerous in the winter.

NH HIKER FALLS TO DEATH OFF MOUNTAIN CLIFF WHILE TAKING PHOTOS WITH HIS WIFE, AUTHORITIES SAY

Snow-covered Mount Baldy is visible from Mt. Disappointment Road in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Snow-covered Mount Baldy is visible from Mt. Disappointment Road in the San Gabriel Mountains.
( Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“You don’t have to slide hundreds of feet down a slope to get hurt,” Hazzard said. “It could be the section of the trail where you think it’s relatively safe to let your concentration wane and get sloppy with your footing.”

Hazzard suggested alternative southern California hiking options where snowfall is not an issue, including Joshua Tree National Park and the lower peaks of the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Mountains. However, if hikers insist on Mount Baldy during the winter, Hazzard provided some basic tips to try and stay as safe as possible. 

“Find a Forest Service road or flat trail and start there,” Hazzard said. “You can use your trekking poles, microspikes, or snowshoes, and it can be a great time. Bring the 10 essentials, wear layers that you can adjust to control heat and sweat, and let your family know where you’re hiking.”

HIKER FOUND DEAD IN TEXAS NATIONAL PARK AFTER HIGH WIND WARNING ON NEW YEAR’S EVE

Cris Hazzard hiking Mount Baldy.

Cris Hazzard hiking Mount Baldy.
(Cris Hazzard of HikingGuy.com)

“Expect to go slower than usual and enjoy the scenery; winter hiking is not about bagging the miles or summits. If you really want to bag Mount Baldy in the winter, learn how to mountaineer, practice your skills, pick the ideal conditions, and do it responsibly.”

The “extremely dangerous” conditions that claimed the life of the female hiker and another hiker in recent weeks prompted local authorities to urge hikers, including experienced ones, to avoid the area for the time being.

“Please know the current conditions on Mount Baldy are adverse and extremely dangerous. Due to the high winds, the snow has turned to ice, making hiking extremely dangerous,” authorities warned. 

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Los Angeles skyline framed by San Bernadino Mountains and Mount Baldy with fresh snow from Kenneth Hahn State Park.

Los Angeles skyline framed by San Bernadino Mountains and Mount Baldy with fresh snow from Kenneth Hahn State Park.
(Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team said it has responded on 14 rescue missions in the last four weeks alone.

Search crews continue to look for Sands, known for his roles in “The Killing Fields” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” as of Thursday afternoon amid wintry conditions and avalanche warnings.

The U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital. 



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