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Finland, worried by Russian invasion of Ukraine, moves to join NATO; Kremlin warns of response

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© Reuters. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (not pictured) hold a news conference, after signing a declaration between the UK and Finland to deepen their defence and security co-operation, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a

By Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto

HELSINKI (Reuters) -Finland must apply to join the NATO military alliance “without delay”, its president and prime minister said on Thursday, in a historic policy shift triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow said the move was a threat to it and warned it was ready to respond. But Finland’s neighbour Sweden is also close to a decision on asking to join NATO after decades of following a neutral path.

Russia has partly tried to justify its invasion of Ukraine as a means to protect itself from NATO’s eastwards expansion.

However, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible for Helsinki’s decision.

“You caused this. Look at the mirror,” he said prior to Thursday’s announcement.

Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810 miles) border and a difficult past with Russia, has gradually stepped up its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a partner since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

But until the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine – which has seen thousands of people killed, cities razed, and forced millions to flee their homes – the Nordic country had refrained from joining NATO in order to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbour.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement.

“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”

The Finnish parliament will debate the announcement on Monday. A majority of lawmakers have already signalled their support for membership.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said any accession process would be “smooth and swift” and that Finland “would be warmly welcomed”.

KREMLIN WARNING

After the announcement, Niinisto spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who lauded Finland’s readiness to apply for NATO membership.

Russia, which had repeatedly warned both countries against joining the alliance, said on Thursday a Finnish entry into NATO was “definitely” a threat to it.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and secure.”

Everyone wanted to avoid a direct a clash between NATO and Russia but Moscow was prepared to make a “decisive response” to any side that tried to hinder Russia’s operation in Ukraine, he said.

Asked what form Russia’s response would take, he replied: “Everything will depend on how this expansion process of NATO plays out, the extent to which military infrastructure moves closer to our borders.”

Poland and the Baltics, which were once ruled from Moscow and are now members of NATO, welcomed Finland’s announcement.

“Finland decided to join the Alliance. NATO is about to get stronger. Baltics about to get safer,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.

The head of the Estonian defence forces said Finland joining the alliance, and possibly Sweden, would boost NATO’s maritime and air defences.

“The most important addition to our defence plans is awareness of maritime and airspace. We will have a common picture, we will have our warning time reduced,” Brigadier General Enno Mots told Reuters on Thursday.

Finland worries it would be vulnerable to Russian threats during an application process, which could take up to a year to be approved by all 30 NATO members.

On Wednesday, it struck a security agreement with Britain. And on May 5 the United States said it was confident Finland’s security concerns in an interim period could be addressed.

On Thursday the Pentagon said it would not be difficult to integrate Finland into NATO.

RAPID CHANGE

Ukraine’s fate has been particularly disturbing for Finland to watch as it fought two wars with Russia between 1939 and 1944, repelling an attempted invasion but losing around 10% of its territory in the subsequent peace agreement.

The view among Finns on NATO has changed rapidly since Russia initiated what it calls a “special operation” in Ukraine.

Public support for joining NATO has risen to record numbers over recent months. While military non-alignment has long satisfied many Finns as a way of staying out of conflicts, Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine has led an increasing number of Finns to view friendly relations with Russia as an empty phrase.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats are due to decide on Sunday whether to overturn decades of opposition to NATO membership, a move that would almost certainly lead to Sweden also asking to join the alliance.

World

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney blasts fellow Republicans after ‘great replacement’ mass shooting

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) testifies before the House Rules Committee in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2021. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Representative Liz Cheney called on fellow Republicans to reject white supremacism, days after a teenage gunman motivated by the right-wing “great replacement” theory allegedly killed 10 people in a racist shooting in western New York state.

“The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism,” Cheney, an outspoken Republican critic of former President Donald Trump and his allies in the House of Representatives, wrote on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR).

“History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them,” she tweeted.

Political fallout from the weekend shooting could become a new hurdle for Republicans, as they try to minimize infighting over party fealty to Trump in the run-up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.

A 180-page manifesto that circulated online, believed to have been authored by the 18-year-old white man accused in the killing spree, outlined the “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that white people were being replaced by minorities in the United States and elsewhere.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blamed the spreading of the “replacement” theory on conservative media pundits and Trump-style Republican rhetoric on immigration.

“These views should have no place in American society and certainly no place in the segments of our most-watched news channels,” said Schumer, who called for rooting out of hatred and legislation to address gun violence.

Cheney is one of two Republicans on a congressional committee that has subpoenaed House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and four other party lawmakers to testify about the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by hundreds of Trump supporters.

McCarthy dismissed Cheney’s tweet by calling her criticism typical and saying she was just trying “to play a political game when she knows something’s not true.”

The California Republican also said he had not given any thought to the Jan. 6 committee’s subpoena, describing the panel as “a one-party-appointed committee.”

Cheney was joined in her criticism by Representative Adam Kinzinger, a fellow maverick Republican who is also on the committee, in blaming the party’s leadership for not condemning the racism that fueled the attack in Buffalo, New York, where 11 of the 13 wounded were Black Americans.

“Here is my replacement theory: we need to replace @EliseStefanik, @GOPLeader, @RepMTG, @CawthornforNC and a number of others,” Kinzinger said Sunday in a tweet referring to McCarthy, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and hard-line Trump supporters Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn.

“The replacement theory they are pushing/tolerating is getting people killed,” said Kinzinger.

Cheney and Kinzinger maintain that House leaders are pandering to Trump allies and supporters who advocate white nationalism as the party tries to take control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

In a tweet on Saturday, Kinzinger said Stefanik pushed white replacement theory in Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) ads last September that claimed Democrats planned to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants to overthrow the U.S. electorate and perpetuate their power.

Stefanik’s office in a statement rejected that criticism.

“Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a new disgusting low for the left, their Never Trump allies and the sycophant stenographers in the media,” said Alex DeGrasse, a senior adviser to Stefanik.

Stefanik, who represents a New York state congressional district, replaced Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican last year after Cheney condemned Trump for the January 2021 Capitol attack by his supporters.

Greene on Twitter said that responsibility for the shooting lay only with the gunman. The offices of McCarthy and Cawthorn did not respond to requests for comment.

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An oasis in underserved Buffalo neighborhood became killing field

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© Reuters. Mourners react while attending a vigil for victims of the shooting at a TOPS supermarket in Buffalo, New York, U.S. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Jenna Zucker

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) – For many people in the neighborhood, the Tops Friendly Market was an answer to prayers when it opened for business 19 years ago, providing an oasis of fresh groceries at affordable prices in the middle of an area long considered a “food desert.”

Before Tops came, residents of the blocks around Jefferson Avenue in east-central Buffalo, New York – most of them Black people – had to travel for miles to find the kind of supermarket that suburban America takes for granted.

Birthday cake, salad fixings and a prescription refill? It was one-stop shopping for people once unaccustomed to such convenience.

In the years since it opened, the store became a focal point for the tight-knit community, according to many residents. It was just down the street, welcoming, a place to bump into old friends and make new ones.

All of that abruptly ended on Saturday afternoon when a teenager, motivated by racist ideology, carried out a well-planned attack designed to shoot and kill as many Black people as he could, according to law enforcement authorities.

The suspect chose Tops precisely because it was that focal point that Black residents of the community describe, officials said.

“We needed it because we were traveling away from our area to go grocery shopping and buy our items, things that we needed. So it means a whole lot to us, and now it’s just been ripped away from us,” said Yvonda King, a hair stylist who lives down the street from the store.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses the term ‘food desert’ to describe areas with limited supplies of fresh, affordable foods. An estimated 54.4 million Americans – 17.7% of the population – live in food deserts, according to the USDA.

Not everyone living in food deserts is Black, but studies have shown that even when poverty levels are similar, Black neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets than other areas.

The near-dearth of supermarkets in the east side of Buffalo highlights a de facto racial divide that persists in the city, the second largest in New York state.

According to a 2018 report, about 85% of residents who identify as Black live east of Main Street, the north-south thoroughfare that separates the east and west sides of Buffalo.

Where you live in Buffalo not only dictates your access to healthy food but also quality jobs, good schools and decent housing, the report by Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank, concluded.

In a small way, Tops filled some of the void. Now, to many Black residents, the store has become a painful reminder that racism, even in its most violent form, is an everyday reality.

“I go to the Tops every day and I just didn’t that day,” said Christina Hanesworth, 38, a client relations specialist in Buffalo. “I think about if I would have left my two kids at home to get some milk and never made it back.”

Tops, headquartered in Williamsville, just outside Buffalo, said it would ensure the community was able to meet their grocery and pharmacy needs by providing a free shuttle service to the closest location, almost 5 miles (8 km) away. Tops and others are opening a temporary food-distribution center a few blocks from the now-closed store, city officials said.

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Suspect in Buffalo supermarket massacre visited city in March, police say

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© Reuters. A Buffalo Police officer stands at the scene of a shooting at a TOPS supermarket in Buffalo, New York, U.S. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Jenna Zucker and Gabriella Borter

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) -An investigation into the weekend shooting of 13 people in Buffalo, New York, turned on Monday to a visit police said the suspect made to the city in March and whether warning signs were missed, as public figures decried the suspect’s racist ideology.

Authorities said Payton Gendron, 18, who is white, carried out an act of “racially motivated violent extremism” when he opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle on Saturday at the Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Buffalo, where 11 of the 13 people struck by gunfire were Black.

Gendron, who police said surrendered to officers who confronted him inside the store, has been jailed without bond on a charge of first-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty.

Investigators have said they are searching through phone records, computers and online postings, as well as physical evidence, as new details about the suspect’s past and meticulous planning emerge.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the suspect, a resident of a southern New York state town hours away by car, made a trip to the Tops store in March to map its layout in preparation for the attack. He was confronted there at the time by a store security guard, who thought he looked suspicious, according to the Post.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told reporters at a news briefing on Monday that the suspect had paid a visit to Buffalo in early March, but he declined to confirm other details of the investigation reported by the Washington Post or other news media.

The Post said the planning trip to Buffalo was described in a 589-page document posted online by someone who identified himself as Gendron. The document is no longer available publicly, the Post reported.

The document referred to the Tops store as “attack area 1” and described two other nearby locations as attack areas to “shoot all blacks,” the Post reported. Gendron counted that there were 53 Black people and six white people in the Tops at the time of his visit, according to the account.

Police confirmed that they are investigating Gendron’s online postings, which included a 180-page manifesto he was believed to have written outlining the “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that white people were being replaced by minorities in the United States and elsewhere.

“The evidence that we have uncovered so far makes no mistake this is an absolute racist hate crime that will be prosecuted as a hate crime,” Gramaglia told reporters on Sunday.

Experts say the trend of mostly young white men being inspired by previous racist gun massacres is on the rise, citing recent mass shootings, including the 2015 attack at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a 2018 shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a 2019 attack at a Walmart (NYSE:WMT) in an Hispanic neighborhood of El Paso.

President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden plan to visit Buffalo on Tuesday.

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