INDEPENDENT 2024-03-20 16:03:49


Putin’s forces ‘drop 200 bombs’ near border as Kyiv ‘attacks air base in Russia’

Volodymyr Zelensky has condemned Russia‘s “constant” attacks on Ukraine‘s northeastern region of Sumy as he claimed almost 200 bombs have been dropped over the area this month alone.

The relentless Russian bombing has prompted civilian evacuations as authorities in Sumy said there had been 30 instances of shelling during the day on Tuesday.

“Since the beginning of the month, Russian aviation has already dropped almost 200 guided bombs on the communities of Sumy region,” Zelensky said. “Villages, cities, civilian infrastructure.”

In the Belgorod region, intensifying border attacks were reported by Russia and Ukraine with evacuations on both sides.

As the two sides pound each other with shelling, a Ukrainian intelligence source said Ukrainian drones operated by the GUR military intelligence agency attacked the Engels air base deep inside Russian territory early on Wednesday.

Kyiv is assessing the damage of the base which is the main home of Russia’s long-range strategic bomber fleet.

The governor of the Saratov region, where the base is located, said Ukrainian drones had been downed near the city of Engels but did not report any damage.

‘Fentanyl killer’ who watched couple die before forging will guilty

An IT worker who poisoned a married couple with the opioid painkiller fentanyal and rewrote their will to take control of their shower mat company has been convicted of their murders.

Luke D’Wit, 34, befriended Stephen and Carol Baxter, aged 61 and 64, while working for them and later told police that he was “like an adopted son to both of them”.

Just one day after their deaths, he created a will on his phone on 10 April at 6.54am which left him the couple’s company Cazplash.

Describing him as the “beneficiary of a very odd will”, the terms included that all business decisions be put to him as the “director and person with significant control”.

Despite denying their murders, D’Wit, of Churchfields, West Mersea, was found guilty on both charges.

The couple’s daughter discovered them dead inside their conservatory at their home in Victory Road in Mersea Island on Easter Sunday last year.

Both were sitting in their individual armchairs, with no suicide note and their house and kitchen area kept neat and tidy.

In a 999 call, their daughter Ellie Baxter could be heard screaming and crying as she told the call handler “I need an ambulance right now” before she could be heard banging on the glass of the conservatory.

The phone was then passed to D’Wit who described himself as a “friend” and remained “very calm and plausible” throughout the call.

While he was not initially treated as a suspect, the investigation changed after the fire service ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning and a toxicology report in June indicated that fentanyl was a docator in both of their deaths.

In both cases, their stomach contents were analysed and it “suggests but doesn’t conclusively show that the drug was ingested orally”.

“It’s difficult to imagine any scenario when two individuals who are not prescribed fentanyl could accidentally contaminate their food with this drug,” the prosecutor told jurors.

Ahead of her death, D’Wit created a number of false identities, including a doctor from Florida who was offering medical advice to Mrs Baxter with “no clinical basis”.

Pretending to be Andrea Bowden, he told his victim that “seeing family releases too many chemicals in the adrenal gland” and warned her to keep less regular contact with her loved ones.

He similarly posed as a support group of false identities who were also sufferers of Hashimoto, the thyroid condition Mrs Baxter suffered from, and a solicitor to convince her family that the will he had created was authentic.

It later emerged that D’Wit had also installed a “mobile security surveillance application” which allowed him to operate a camera in the couple’s living room, and had watched them die.

Analysis of his phone found images of the two “in their armchairs” on the afternoon of April 7 last year, with Mrs Baxter’s pacemaker failing to record any further movements from then onwards.

Jurors heard that D’Wit had begun working for the couple in 2012 or 2013, with Mrs Baxter gradually becoming reliant on him due to her ill health.

Describing him as “weird”, their daughter said he knew the security key pin to the gate of their house, as well as the location of a key safe and was helping administer her mother’s medication.

Detective Superintendent Rob Kirby, of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, said in an interview outside court that D’Wit was “without doubt one of the most dangerous men I’ve ever experienced in my policing career”.

He said: “I have absolutely no doubt that had he not been caught, he would have gone on to commit further murders.”

Mr Kirby said that “justice has been served today”, adding that D’Wit “rightly belongs behind bars”.

The defendant “fooled everyone”, he added.

“He befriended people, came across as a very amenable, helpful person but in the background he was a cool, calculated killer who spent years planning the demise of Carol and Stephen Baxter,” he said.

He described D’Wit as a “loner” who “spent hours of his time creating false personas, all there to create control over the Baxters”.

He continued: “D’Wit’s downfall was the arrogance that existed within him.

“He didn’t cover his tracks properly and he was deluded in thinking that he could use fentanyl to kill two people and that wouldn’t be found to be suspicious.”

He is due to return to Chelmsford Crown Court on Friday for sentencing.

Leo Varadkar: Irish PM to step down for ‘personal and political’ reasons

Leo Varadkar is to step down as Ireland’s prime minister and the leader of the governing Fine Gael party for “personal and political” reasons.

His surprise departure as head of the three-party coalition does not automatically trigger a general election and he is set to be replaced by a new Fine Gael leader.

The announcement comes ahead of local government and European parliament elections in Ireland in June. The next general election must be held by early spring next year.

Mr Varadkar, 45, became the first gay prime minister of the once staunchly Catholic country and the youngest person to hold the office when he first became taoiseach in 2017. He returned to the premiership in 2022 for a second term.

He said he believed his coalition could win the next election, but “after careful consideration and some soul searching, I believe that a new taoiseach and a new leader will be better placed than me to achieve that… after seven years in office, I don’t feel I’m the best person for that job anymore.”

He said he had enjoyed being Taoiseach, and that he was “proud that we have made the country a more equal and more modern place.”

“However, politicians are human beings and we have our limitations… we give it everything until we can’t anymore and then we have to move on.”

He added: “I know inevitably there’ll be speculation as to the quote unquote ‘real reason’ for my decision. These are the real reasons. That’s it. I have nothing else lined up, I have nothing in mind, I have no definite personal or political plans, but I’m really looking forward to having the time to think about them.”

Mr Varadkar once insisted he would not remain in politics beyond the age of 50, albeit he later said he regretted making that pledge.

The announcement comes after a few turbulent weeks for the coalition government, which was resoundingly beaten in two referendums on changes ministers had proposed to the Irish constitution.

The comprehensive defeats were a significant blow to Mr Varadkar and other coalition leaders who had campaigned for ‘yes yes’ votes in the plebiscites.

Over the last year, ten Fine Gael TDs have announced their intention to step away from politics at the general election, fuelling speculation of internal discontent within the party.

Cabinet ministers met in Dublin on Wednesday for the first time since the referenda defeats.

Sinn Fein, the main opposition party, has held a wide lead over Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in all opinion polls for the last two years, but the current coalition also stands a chance of being re-elected in 2025.

Contenders to succeed Mr Varadkar as Fine Gael leader include higher education minister Simon Harris, who was health minister during the pandemic, enterprise minister Simon Coveney, public expenditure minister Paschal Donohoe, and justice minister Helen McEntee.

Mr Varadkar, 45, has also just returned from the United States where he was involved in several high-profile engagements with US president Joe Biden as part of traditional St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

He had told the president it is possible “to be for Israel and for Palestine” during a speech at a White House event.

He said the Irish people are “deeply troubled” by what is happening in Gaza because “we see our history in their eyes” through forced emigration, a denied identity and hunger.

But the taoiseach also said “we also see Israel’s history reflected in our eyes” through a diaspora “whose heart never left home” and had a nation and language revived.

He said that lessons can be learned from the peace process in Northern Ireland “particularly the concept of parity of esteem” and the key role of the United States.

Mr Biden, who often celebrates his Irish heritage, paid tribute to immigrants who left Ireland for the US during his speech, saying: “The Irish spirit can never be overcome.”

Deputy Irish premier Micheal Martin insisted the resignation would not prompt an early general election.

“To be honest, I’m surprised, but I want to take the opportunity to thank him sincerely,” he told reporters. “We got on very well. We had a strong personal relationship, the three leaders had, which I think was important in terms of the continuity and stability of the government.

“And I want to take this opportunity again to wish Leo the very best in his personal life and in his career into the future.”

He added: “We will work with the newly elected leader of the Fine Gael Party in terms of continuing the coalition, and I’ve been very consistent from the very beginning that my view is the government should go full term, and that remains my position as of today – a lot of work to be done and we’re going to continue to focus on getting that work done.”

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan paid tribute Varadkar as “an energetic and committed leader.”

“I would like to offer my good wishes to Leo as he prepares to depart the taoiseach’s office,” he said. “He has served the country well and can be proud of the contribution he has made to Irish political life.”

Anger as latest Banksy vandalised overnight

Neighbours have spoken of their frustration after vandals struck in the night splashing Banksy’s latest tree mural with two huge licks of white paint.

The elusive artist’s mural drew crowds on Monday, with most struck by the ecological message and visual allusion of green leaves returned to a severely cropped cherry tree on Hornsey Road, north London.

But on Tuesday night other graffiti artists silently clambered over the hastily erected Islington Council fences to write their tag in the same green as Banksy, and throw white paint over the leaves.

The artwork in the Finsbury Park neighbourhood covers the wall of a four-story building and shows a small figure holding a pressure hose beside a large cherry tree.

Green paint has been sprayed across the wall, replicating the absent leaves of the tree, which has been severely cropped.

Amy, who lives with a joining wall to the graffiti, posted on X: “Someone’s vandalised the Banksy overnight. Gutted. Why can’t people let a community be happy without trying to ruin it.”

Asked if she heard any suspicious activity on Tuesday night, she said: “Nope nothing – alas I didn’t hear anything when he painted it originally.”

Lewis Cowell, 51, a caretaker of the flats for ten years told The Independent: “The white paint that is just vandalism but then some would say Bansky is a vandal so it’s just a certain point of view.

“Someone else has been there and done a tag as well, in the same green.

“You will never catch them. It’s like when Banksy put it up – nobody saw anything.

“The other graffiti artists come over and have a bee in their bonnet and try to get one over him.”

He added the council would try to remove the extra graffiti whilst protecting the Banksy.

He said council workers purposely cut back the 50-year-old cherry tree afflicted with fungus to allow it to bloom.

“With a bit of luck we will have some foliage on the tree this year. It used to drape right over the street but it got sick.

“It’s budding you can see it.”

A neighbour Amanda Diment, 61, said: “It was only a matter of time, I’m just happy nobody has scrawled the C-word over it.

“The white paint looks like it’s part of it to be honest it almost adds another layer. I used to cycle past that cherry tree every day and never looked twice.

“It’s nice this forgotten area of Islington is getting some publicity too.”

Local artist Mark Cornwell, 64, said: “Banksy’s work is normally very intelligent, subliminal almost. But this is too overbearing and too easy. I think he is almost losing it. His work used to be small with a smart comment.

“I think he knows it won’t be permanent that wall has had it. It’s blown out. He will have known that. It’s not overrated it’s overblown. There is nothing cheeky, no cheeky gem for you to think about.

“He must have sprayed it on the run-down wall in the rain and it’s dripped down.”

On the vandalism, he added: “I thought the white paint was part of it, to be honest. I don’t know what that means I don’t get that.”

Banksy claimed the work by posting before and after photos of the location on his official Instagram account.

The new attraction drew a stream of onlookers who took photos and snapped selfies. Many discerned an environmental message in the vibrant green artwork, which appeared on Sunday — St Patrick’s Day.

“The tree looks very sad without branches and without greenery,” said Pura Lawler, on her way to a gym class. She felt Banksy was saying something about “destroying the forests, destroying the greenery.”

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who represents the area in Parliament, said the work “makes people stop and think, ‘Hang on. We live in one world. We live in one environment. It is vulnerable and on the cusp of serious damage being done to it.’”

“Environmental politics is about densely populated urban areas like this, just as much as it is about farmland and woodland and hedges,” he added.

Banksy, who has never confirmed his full identity, began his career spray-painting buildings in Bristol, England, and has become one of the world’s best-known artists.

The new Ghostbusters is a silly and scary return to franchise fun

In 2021, the frightfully cynical Ghostbusters: Afterlife reduced one the greatest comedies ever made to a solemn parade of nostalgic artefacts, with moody shots of the famous proton packs and decked-out hearse. It also committed a particularly egregious act of digital necromancy, forcing the CGI-assisted return of the late Harold Ramis as Egon Spengler. Thankfully, there’s a limited resource of reverential nostalgia to be squeezed out of the franchise. Afterlife’s sequel, Frozen Empire, has – potentially against its will – been forced to actually put the Ghostbusters to work.

Granted, there are multiple, quite annoying cameos and nods to the original 1984 film in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. Slimer, the trash-addicted ghoul, returns. There are more Baby Stay Puft Marshmallow Men who, much to the franchise’s dismay, did not successfully kill Baby Yoda in his sleep by toppling his domination of the cute film-mascot market. The film, without reason, opens with a Robert Frost quote, which triggers immediate concerns that this will be yet another tribute to the mourned childhoods of the men who went DEFCON 1 when they let women be funny in the 2016 Ghostbusters.

But, be assured, Frozen Empire is a notable improvement on Afterlife – funny, silly, and a little scary, with its pockets full of hand-built doodahs and the occasional excursion into the realm of pseudo-mythology and parapsychology. You know, like the original Ghostbusters. At some point in the process, director Gil Kenan and co-writer Jason Reitman (son of the late Ivan Reitman, who directed the original), seem to have remembered that Ghostbusters was Dan Aykroyd’s baby, born out of a lifelong interest in the paranormal.

And so, Frozen Empire picks up the best character from the previous film, Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), a sort of mini-me of her granddad and OG Ghostbuster Spengler, and teams her up with Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz. He’s in semi-retirement, spending his days now hoarding other people’s psychically charged trinkets.

Phoebe and her family – mother Callie (Carrie Coon), stepdad Gary (Paul Rudd), and brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) – have relocated to New York City, allowing Ghostbusters to once again be a quintessentially New York story about poor bureaucracy and pest control. They’ve taken over the old firehouse headquarters in order to run the Ghostbusters operation anew, with the help, of course, of original characters Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) and Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts).

When an ancient relic housing a pre-Sumerian death god surfaces, Bill Murray is dragged back into the fold to clock his required screen time as Peter Venkman (and not a second more). Hudson and Potts certainly aren’t short-changed, but it’s really Aykroyd’s moment here. When Ray tells Winston, “This is how I want to spend my golden years, this is what I love,” it’s as if both actor and character are speaking as one. It’s a performance so rooted in the joy of being back in the world he created and loves, that it knocks the entire affair back into orbit a little.

Frozen Empire has some nice visual flourishes. At one point, a decapitated hand cranks a gramophone. The film’s supporting cast includes comedians Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, and James Acaster (the latter unfortunately wasted in a character who exists purely to explain how things work, when he’s exactly the kind of brilliantly erratic talent who should be leading the whole thing). It’s a little bloated, too, with a somewhat queerbaiting, spectral love interest who throws up unnecessary ethical questions about the Ghostbusters’ practices. But, here, at least, we’re firmly on the way to a Ghostbusters film that actually feels like a Ghostbusters film.

Dir: Gil Kenan. Starring: Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts. 12A, 115 minutes.

History, heritage, cuisine and culture in Split, Croatia

Historical buildings, pine forest hills and breathtaking views of the Adriatic Sea are just a few things to expect on a fun-filled trip to the old-world coastal city of Split. This ancient sliver of the country is steeped in eclectic history and blessed with abundant natural beauty, a dynamic food scene, and more cultural attractions you can shake a stick at. It’s an all-rounder, ideal to visit no matter the season and even for a quick city break since there are plenty of direct flights from UK cities, including Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. Here’s our must-see, must-do guide to this stunning city…

Split is Croatia’s sportiest city, often referred to as The City of Sport, thanks to the number of professional athletes that hail from the city. In fact, Split is the city with the highest number of Olympic medal winners per capita. You can see their names proudly presented on Sports Walk of Fame on the city’s west coast, including Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanišević, double world high jump champion Blanka Vlašić, and ex–NBA star Toni Kukoč.

Catch a basketball game featuring the legendary KK Split, one of the most successful clubs in Europe, at the Gripe Sports Hall, or watch a football match with HNK Hajduk Split at the Poljud Stadium to feel the electrifying passion of local fans. If you’d rather participate, take advantage of Split’s drop-dead coastal location by trying windsurfing, kayaking, paddle boarding or sailing; many places offer equipment rental or lessons. Or, to keep it traditional, try your hand at ‘picigin’ – a local ball game from Split that is played at the beach.

For a more cerebral experience, immerse yourself in the city’s rich history, from Roman walls to UNESCO heritage sites and historical Old Towns. Wander through preserved Roman streets lined with Gothic and Renaissance buildings and visit the oldest cathedral building in the world, Diocletian’s Palace, built between 295 and 305 A.D. The beautiful basement halls here (more commonly known as the substructures) are one of the world’s best-preserved complexes from the era of classical antiquity and central to the historical centre of Split being added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979.

Dip your toe into the world of Croatian art at the Ivan Meštrović Gallery, wholly dedicated to the sculptor himself, renowned for his powerful and expressive works. There’s also the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments, which delves deep into the city’s history across more than 20,000 artefacts. Plus, the museum itself is an architectural masterpiece.

If you want to learn all about the city’s history and citizens, the City Museum of Split is a must-visit. It was founded in 1947 at the stunning palace of the Papalić family and is a stunning example of late-Gothic style architecture.

There’s also the Ethnographic Museum of Split, situated inside a former residential complex in the southeastern quarter of Diocletian’s Palace. The museum holds a vast collection of artefacts that showcase the traditional way of life, customs, and cultural practices of the people of the Dalmatia region and beyond. You’ll find everything from household items and religious objects to traditional tools and clothing.

Leave some time in your itinerary to explore the city’s natural wonders and incredible beaches. Ideally situated on the Adriatic coast, Split houses some of Croatia’s finest and most picturesque beaches. Bačvice Beach is one of the most popular in the area, perfect for shallow bathing and basking in the sun; plus, there are many bars and restaurants along the front, and concerts take place throughout the summer months.

There’s also Bene Beach, located on the northeastern part of the leafy Marjan Forest Park, often referred to as the green oasis of Split. It’s usually a little quieter, so it’s perfect for finding a secluded spot, sheltered beautifully by the trees that border the shoreline. Hiking or biking in the forest park Marjan is also a great way to experience the natural landscape of the Dalmatian Coast. You can follow many routes through fragrant pine forests and scenic viewpoints – the Marjan Hill Viewpoint overlooks the entire Old Town. Finish off with a dip in the sea to cool off.

Kašjuni Beach is known for being particularly beautiful, surrounded by lush greenery and rocky cliffs. It tends to be a little quieter and less crowded with calm, crystal-clear water, ideal for snorkelling and swimming. While on the southern side of Marjan, you’ll find Kaštelet Beach, a small but peaceful fine-pebbled beach with shallow banks, perfect for dipping in and out of between basking in the sun.

Follow the scenic coastal promenade from the city centre, and you’ll eventually reach Trstenik, home to a well-equipped, picturesque beach popular amongst water sports enthusiasts. Here, you can enjoy windsurfing, kitesurfing, kayaking, paddle boarding and more. The surrounding neighbourhood is chock full of restaurants, shops and places to stay should you want to spend a few nights here.

Split also serves as an ideal hub for day excursions, offering easy access to the stunning Dalmatian islands and hinterland, each brimming with natural and cultural treasures. From the city, you can visit several of Dalmatia’s spectacular islands, including Brac, Hvar, Vis, Solta and many more. Bisevo Island is one of the most popular to visit, where the remains of a 1050 AD Benedictine monastery lay, and the Blue Cave, one of the must-see natural attractions in the country, renowned for its incredible glowy sun rays that shine through cracks in the cave, creating a magical blue glimmer.

Just a half-hour drive from the city centre, you’ll find idyllic hiking trails on mountains such as Mosor, Kozjak, and Biokovo. There’s also the Cetina River, where you can participate in heart-pumping rafting and canyoning adventures.

As a cultural hub, Split boasts a diverse timetable of not-to-be-missed events throughout the year, including Sudamja, Stories of Diocletian, Advent – Winter Joys, Split Summer Festival, the Split Carnival, Month of Gastronomy and the Split Marathon.  In recent years, the city has also emerged as a sought-after filming destination, hosting productions such as Game of Thrones and the Dark Tower movie. So it’s pretty fitting that the city is home to the Mediterranean Film Festival and the International Festival of New Film.

Food-wise, Croatia’s diverse and delicious cuisine varies significantly from region to region, with coastal areas focusing more on seafood dishes like grilled fish, octopus salad, and black risotto. Learn all about Croatian fare at a local cookery class, where you’ll get to sample and make delicious dishes and take recipes back home.

Split’s culinary scene is constantly evolving, with many restaurants opening in the city, especially in the historic centre and its surroundings. Several restaurants have been recognised by the world-famous Michelin Guide, but there are many more worth visiting, with menus brimming with local Mediterranean cuisine, often with a creative twist added by some of Croatia’s best chefs. Most of the local restaurants’ menus are made with regional, fresh produce, including just-caught seafood.

For an authentic Croatian experience and the most local atmosphere, travellers should dine at a traditional tavern-style konoba restaurant, the Dalmatian version of a tavern, where you can enjoy fresh fish and seafood and popular local meat dishes.

The local diet is also rich in seasonal vegetables, which vegetarians can enjoy in many of the city’s restaurants, with plenty of spots specialising in vegetarian and vegan fare.

Wine and olive oil are essential components of Split’s gastronomic makeup, meaning that restaurants are always stocked with exceptional Croatian wines, particularly those produced within Dalmatia. You can enjoy them with dinner or at a local wine tasting.

If you’re looking for local produce, Ribarnica is stocked with fresh seafood plucked out of the neighbouring Adriatic Sea. While Pazar Green Market is the place to go for fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, cheese, cured meat, honey, and sweet treats, for delicious eats you can sample on the spot, or take home for a slice of Split you can reminisce with.

For more Split travel ideas and inspiration, head to Visit Split or check out Instagram or Facebook

Rwanda bill is fatally flawed – it cannot survive in its current form

After suffering some fairly rough treatment in the House of Lords, the government’s Rwanda bill returned for some emergency treatment in the Commons, where all of the Lords amendments – major and minor, destructive and constructive – were rejected.

Thanks to the Conservatives’ still substantial majority there, with most of the dissent coming from those who judge the bill to be not harsh enough, the Rwanda plan is once more in the hands of their lordships. The government hopes that the bill will be passed shortly, receive royal assent, and become law by Easter. That is an optimistic assessment of its chances; in any case, this fundamentally unconstitutional bill does not deserve to survive in anything like its present form.

It remains fatally flawed because it takes the extraordinary step of attempting to dismiss a finding of fact made by the Supreme Court. As Kenneth Clarke has argued with cruel clarity, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent in allowing parliament to override a lawful ruling by the highest court in the land, and thus undermines the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Parliament may be sovereign, but it cannot act outside the constitution because the UK is not (yet) a totalitarian elective dictatorship.

What can we learn from Rachel Reeves about Labour’s economic policy?

According to the shadow chancellor, Britain faces a 1979 moment, a decisive shift in economic policy reminiscent of the way in which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government broke with the post-war consensus on full employment and a mixed economy – but in a rather different direction, seeing as Rachel Reeves wants to put economic growth at the centre of “a decade of national renewal”.

Delivering the prestigious Mais lecture, more often given by a serving chancellor or governor of the Bank of England, Reeves has been granted a considerable honour – and has given us some insights into her ambitions, should Labour come to power