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Bending to popular anger, Putin installs helipad at Kremlin

Vladimir Putin has finally decided to make a concession to his critics. But he isn't exactly bending over backwards. Instead, he's having a helipad installed at the Kremlin.

Sure, it may not be the most meaningful reform. But it does cater to widespread anger at the Russian leader. Muscovites have in recent months grown furious about the delays caused by the president's motorcades, which often stop traffic and clear the streets for hours on end. Now, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin may commute to work more often by Mi8 helicopter.

According to a report by the GPS manufacturer TomTom, the traffic in Moscow is the world's worst. And drivers in the Russian capital deeply resent that Putin and a cadre of senior officials have taken to closing roads to get around congestion. In an act of protest, drivers in Moscow have begun honking at the presidential motorcade while they sit at a stand-still and watch Putin speed by. Thanks to Russia's ubiquitous dashboard cameras, the phenomenon is well-documented:

But Putin isn't the only one trying to circumvent Moscow's gridlock. Lower-level officials are allowed to place blue lights on the roofs of their cars and use them to skirt traffic laws, including driving on the opposite side of the road. That system has been widely abused, and self-important Muscovites have taken to placing blue lights on their vehicles regardless of whether they possess a permit to do so (the abuse inspired drivers in the capital to place blue buckets on the roofs of their cars to object to the practice). Last year, Putin vowed to drastically reduced the number of officials granted the right to use the blue lights.

When Putin was asked about these very issues in an interview back in October, he was apologetic but didn't exactly seem overly concerned. "I truly feel bad about it," he said. But when asked about French President François Hollande's decision to stop at all the red lights en route to his inauguration in Paris, Putin bristled at the suggestion he could do more to alleviate the problem. "He’s a good guy, but I don’t engage in populism," Putin said. "There’s work to be done."

For kicks (and contrasts), here's RIA Novosti's unbelievably patriotic video of Putin's motorcade arriving for his inauguration ceremony last year. Note the utter lack of either red lights or human beings of any kind along the parade route:

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Watch the Syrian rebel assault on Aleppo's prison


View the Aleppo Prison battle in a larger map

 

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels in the northeast outskirts of the flashpoint city of Aleppo made an ambitious attempt to storm the city's main prison, setting off two car bombs near the jail's entrance at dawn, according to the Associated Press. The AP, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports that Syrian warplanes prevented the opposition fighters from breaking though the prison's inner walls.

The rebels were driven back even though they appear to have been observing the neighborhood for days, according to videos uploaded to YouTube. One, posted last week, shows a rebel pointing out a "counterterrorism building" down the street from the prison, while another, filmed as the attack began, shows a truck-mounted machine gun tucked away in a shelter overlooking the prison. A third appears to have been filmed from the opposite side of the prison complex, looking back toward the village where the machine gun was located.

 

At some point in the fighting, the rebels appear to have breached a wall near the prison. Below watchtowers, fighters take turns shooting AK-47s through holes in the plaster. One rebel, in the video below, tells the camera, "We have assembled more than 5,000 mujahideen ready to liberate the prison and to help the brothers and fight for the brothers.... We are mujahideen and we will liberate the prisoners in the central prison!" When he calls on his comrades to chant "God is great!" though, they sound disheartened.

 

According to the AP, the rebels have since withdrawn from the vicinity of the prison.

UPDATE: The Telegraph reports rebels have said they withdrew from the area of the prison to prevent more casualties after government forces began executing prisoners and throwing the bodies from windows.