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Afghan, Pakistani Officials In Talks In Kabul With Taliban

The site of the current talks, Kabul's Serena Hotel, was the scene of a militant attack in January.
The site of the current talks, Kabul's Serena Hotel, was the scene of a militant attack in January.
RFE/RL has learned that talks were in progress in Kabul between Taliban representatives, Afghan officials, and a Pakistani government delegation.

The talks, at the five-star Serena Hotel, were aimed at setting the ground for negotiations on ending the Afghanistan war. They followed inconclusive meetings hosted by Saudi Arabia that ended more than a year ago.

Sources told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that a so-called Afghan Peace Council was not yet officially involved in the talks because its mandate did not begin until October 7. However, some of the Peace Council's 69 members were said to be attending the October 6 negotiations.

The Peace Council comprises Afghan government delegates and lawmakers, former mujahedin commanders, leaders of Afghan nongovernmental groups, former Taliban officials, and delegates who once were members of the now exiled Afghan mujahedin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami faction.

The White House said on October 6 that President Barack Obama supported recent attempts by the Afghan government to negotiate peace with Taliban insurgents.

However, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also reiterated that Taliban leaders must first give up violence and their support for Al-Qaeda, and must promise to respect Afghan law. Gibbs also said it was up to Afghan leaders to decide whom to talk with.

'Speaking For Mullah Omar'

"The Washington Post" reported that "secret talks" of a "preliminary nature" were under way. That report gave no details about where discussions were taking place or who was attending. But it did quote Afghan and Arab sources who said Taliban representatives were, for the first time, fully authorized to speak for the Afghan Taliban's Pakistan-based Quetta Shura and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

"The Washington Post" report also said the talks do not include representatives of the Haqqani group -- a separate militant faction that has been the target of escalating U.S. drone missile attacks in northwestern Pakistan. The Haqqani network is seen as being more closely tied to Pakistan's intelligence service than is the Quetta Shura.

Abdul Hamid Mubarez, who heads a nongovernmental group called the Afghan Strategic Center, is a member of the Afghan Peace Council. He told RFE/RL today that the purpose of the talks was to develop a mechanism for more specific talks with Taliban leaders aimed at ending the Afghanistan war.

"If I did not have confidence in significant progress from these talks, I would not be participating in this Peace Council," Mubarez said.

Mubarez also told RFE/RL that Pakistan's government is playing a central role in negotiations.

"The people of Afghanistan are tired of war and Pakistan's government has a key role in these talks because the Taliban have their strongholds in Pakistan," Mubarez said. "They are under the influence of Pakistan. I think Pakistan is facing problems that leave no other way except to help resolve this conflict."

Delegation Clout

RFE/RL has learned that Pakistan's delegation is headed by former Foreign Minister Aftab Ahmad Shirpaw. Former members of the Taliban involved in the talks include the Taliban regime's ex-foreign minister, Malawi Mutawakel, and the Taliban regime's former point of contact with the United Nations, Abdul Hakim Mujahed.

U.S. officials say the time for real negotiations with the Taliban has only now arrived. General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said last week that high-level Taliban leaders had "sought to reach out" to the top level of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.

In Washington, the Pentagon said it is probably too soon to begin the process of reintegrating Taliban fighters back into Afghan society. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrel said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates thought the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan troops needed to make more progress on providing security on the ground.

Morrell did not say how long fighting might have to persist before serious reconciliation could advance. But he said the ISAF was raising pressure on the Taliban and the security situation was improving.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley declined to say whether the White House knew in advance about the Kabul talks, but said such discussions were an "inherent part" of the country's Afghan strategy.

"If you look at insurgencies, there has to be action both on the military side and action on the political side. The reconciliation element and the reintegration element are part of the political dimension of our strategy," he said. "Ultimately, insurgencies end, more often than not, because of a political agreement -- not because of a military defeat."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan bureau in Kabul contributed to this report

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EU Looks To Raise 15 Billion Euros From Frozen Russian Assets To Aid Ukraine

European flags fly in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
European flags fly in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The European Union on December 12 will unveil a plan to set aside profits generated from frozen Russian assets in the EU with the aim of eventually raising 15 billion euros ($16.1 billion) to benefit Ukraine, The Financial Times reported on December 11. The report said the European Commission's plan had previously been delayed after several EU members and the European Central Bank raised legal and financial concerns about it. "It's important to look at how we can use Russian immobilized assets and proceeds from those immobilized assets to support Ukraine," Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told the newspaper.

EU To Increase Monitoring Mission In Armenia To 209 Observers From 138

EU observers follow the humanitarian help going to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia on July 26.
EU observers follow the humanitarian help going to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia on July 26.

The European Union’s top diplomat said the bloc will increase the number of observers for its mission in Armenia to 209 from 138. EU policy chief Josep Borrell on December 11 said that "so many things are happening in the whole region. It is important to continue to pay attention to them and, in particular, to Armenia, which has been in a very difficult situation and still is." EU foreign ministers on November 13 approved a proposal to expand the border-monitoring mission deployed to Armenia and to activate discussions on visa liberalization with Yerevan. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.

Romanian Court Rejects Influencer Andrew Tate's Request To Return Assets Seized In Trafficking Case

Former professional kickboxer and social media influencer Andrew Tate, followed by his brother Tristan (right), in Bucharest in April
Former professional kickboxer and social media influencer Andrew Tate, followed by his brother Tristan (right), in Bucharest in April

A court in Romania on December 11 rejected a request by influencer Andrew Tate to return assets that were seized during investigations into the case in which he is charged with human trafficking, rape, and forming a criminal gang to sexually exploit women. The Bucharest Tribunal's decision can be appealed within 48 hours. Tate's lawyer, Eugen Vidineac, told AP he has applied to appeal. The decision comes nearly a year after Tate, his brother Tristan, and two Romanian women were arrested near Bucharest. Romanian prosecutors formally indicted all four in June. They have denied the allegations.

Iranian President Targeted With 'Crimes Against Humanity' Complaint In Switzerland

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)

A legal complaint called on December 11 for Swiss authorities to arrest Iran's president during a potential upcoming visit and charge him with crimes against humanity connected to a 1988 purge of dissidents. The complaint asks Swiss prosecutor Andreas Muller to ensure the arrest and prosecution of Ebrahim Raisi "over his participation in acts of genocide, torture, extrajudicial executions, and other crimes against humanity." Raisi was expected to participate in the UN Global Refugee Forum in Geneva on December 13, but the UN said late on December 11 that Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian would lead the Iranian delegation, an indication Raisi might not show.

U.K. Sends Two Minehunters To Ukraine As Britain, Norway Seek To Bolster Kyiv's Navy

A British Royal Navy patrol ship in the Black Sea during Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers in July 2021
A British Royal Navy patrol ship in the Black Sea during Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers in July 2021

Britain and Norway on December 11 announced they were banding together to bolster Ukraine's navy, saying strong maritime forces are critical to countering Russia's aggression and securing grain and steel shipments through the Black Sea. As part of the effort, Britain is sending two mine-hunting ships, amphibious armored vehicles, and coastal raiding boats to Ukraine, U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said. Shapps and Norwegian Defense Minister Bjorn Arild Gram announced the formation of a maritime capability coalition during a news conference in London, saying other nations were expected to join soon, making it a "truly global affair."

U.S. Sanctions Former Afghan Speaker Rahmani, Son For Alleged Corruption

Former Afghan parliament speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani (file photo)
Former Afghan parliament speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani (file photo)

The U.S. Treasury on December 11 slapped sanctions on a former Afghan official, his son, and 44 related entities, accusing them of misappropriating millions of dollars of funds provided by U.S. government contracts. The sanctions statement cited former Afghan parliament speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani and his son Ajmal Rahmani. "Through their Afghan companies, the Rahmanis perpetrated a complex procurement corruption scheme resulting in the misappropriation of millions of dollars from U.S. Government-funded contracts that supported Afghan security forces," it said, adding that other family members were also designated.

European Union Targets Iran Drone Industry, Citing Russia's Use Against Ukraine

Drones are seen at a site at an undisclosed location in Iran.
Drones are seen at a site at an undisclosed location in Iran.

The European Union on December 11 said it has imposed sanctions on six individuals and five entities it says are involved in Iran's “development and production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) used in Russia's illegal war of aggression." "These are the first listings under the newly established framework for restrictive measures in view of Iran's military support of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. They complement the previous four rounds of listings on Iranian drones already adopted under other sanctions regimes," it added.


U.S. Air Force Moves To Discipline 15 Personnel Related To Leak Case Including Ukraine Data

Prosecutors say Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, who was 21 at the time of his arrest in June, leaked classified documents to a group of gamers on the messaging app Discord.
Prosecutors say Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, who was 21 at the time of his arrest in June, leaked classified documents to a group of gamers on the messaging app Discord.

The U.S. Air Force moved to discipline 15 personnel over the leaking of classified military information allegedly by Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, the military said on December 11. Prosecutors say Teixeira, who was 21 at the time of his arrest in June, leaked classified documents to a group of gamers on the messaging app Discord. The classified material included highly sensitive U.S. military assessments, including on the war in Ukraine. The leak is considered the most serious U.S. national security breach since more than 700,000 documents, videos, and diplomatic cables appeared on the WikiLeaks website in 2010.

Man Convicted Of Killing Russian Reformist Starovoitova Requests Transfer To Open Prison

Galina Starovoitova, a democratic reformer, and co-chair of the Democratic Russia party, was shot dead near the door to her apartment in St. Petersburg on November 20, 1998.
Galina Starovoitova, a democratic reformer, and co-chair of the Democratic Russia party, was shot dead near the door to her apartment in St. Petersburg on November 20, 1998.

The Unified Press Service for courts in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg, said on December 11 that Vitaly Akishin, who was found guilty of murdering lawmaker Galina Starovoitova in 1998, has officially filed papers for a transfer to an open prison -- a dormitory-like facility -- after serving two-thirds of his sentence without violating the prison's internal order regulations.

Starovoitova, a democratic reformer, and co-chair of the Democratic Russia party, was shot dead near the door to her apartment in St. Petersburg on November 20, 1998. Her aide, Ruslan Linkov, was injured in the attack but survived.

Akishin was sentenced in May 2005 to 23 1/2 years in prison in the case, while his co-defendent, Yury Kolchin, was handed a 20-year prison term on the same charge.

In late August 2015, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced former Russian lawmaker Mikhail Glushschenko to 17 years in prison for his role in organizing the high-profile murder that stunned Russia and sent shock waves abroad during Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

Glushchenko made a deal with investigators in March 2015 where he claimed businessman Vladimir Barsukov (aka Kumanin), the alleged head of the notorious Tambov organized crime group, ordered Starovoitova's killing after she blocked him from establishing ties with a number of corrupt city officials.

Barsukov was charged in 2019 with taking part in the organization of the assassination. His trial on that charge is pending while he serves a 23-year prison term he was handed in an unrelated case.

It remains unclear who in fact ordered the assassination of Starovoitova.

In 2018, Starovoitova's sister, Olga Starovoitova, told RFE/RL that Barsukov might have been involved in her sister's killing but that it is unlikely he ordered the hit.

She said there could be several layers of people involved in ordering and organizing the killing, adding that she suspects specific people but will not name them because she believes in the presumption of innocence and does not have proof.

Barsukov was a powerful figure in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and was vice president of the Petersburg Fuel Company.

Vladimir Putin, now president and at the time a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, awarded the city’s lucrative gasoline concession to the company in 1994.

Russia Says 18 Arrested In Crimea Over Alleged Plan To Assassinate Russian-Installed Officials

Russian President Vladimir Putin (third left) makes a speech standing with Crimean parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov (second left), then-Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (fourth left) and other top officials in Sevastopol in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (third left) makes a speech standing with Crimean parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov (second left), then-Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (fourth left) and other top officials in Sevastopol in 2014.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said on December 11 that its officers had arrested 18 people it alleges are pro-Ukrainian agents suspected of planning assassinations of Russian-installed officials in Ukraine's Russian-annexed Crimea. They include the peninsula's de facto governor, Sergei Aksyonov; the speaker of Moscow-controlled Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov; and the de facto mayor of the Crimean city of Yalta, Yanina Pavlenko. In October, the FSB said it detained a man in Crimea on suspicion of plotting an assassination of Russian-friendly former Ukrainian lawmaker Oleh Tsaryov. Last week, Ukrainian authorities claimed responsibility for the killing near Moscow of pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Illya Kyva. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Female-Led Afghan Refugee Families Reluctant To Return To Afghanistan Amid Fresh UN Warning

Afghan refugee women and children sit at a registration center after arriving from Pakistan near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on November 28.
Afghan refugee women and children sit at a registration center after arriving from Pakistan near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on November 28.

Afghan widows and divorced women who head their families and live in Pakistan say they are reluctant to return to Afghanistan because of fears of persecution by the country's Taliban rulers, who have enacted a series of measures severely restricting women's rights and freedoms.

The women are among the 1.7 million "undocumented foreigners" Islamabad is trying to expel. Since it first announced the deportations in October, nearly half a million Afghans have crossed into the war-ravaged country.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, Afghan women who are the breadwinners for their families warned that returning to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will endanger their lives.

“We will be eliminated if we return to Afghanistan,” said Mehnaz Hijran, who served as a prison guard at Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison.


Hijran says she left Afghanistan because of relentless threats after the collapse of the pro-Western Afghan republic she served.

"We know that death is the only fate that awaits former soldiers in Afghanistan," she told Radio Azadi.

“Most of the former women soldiers who returned to Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s amnesty were either disappeared or killed," she added.

Another woman who requested anonymity says her husband, an airport guard, was killed by the Taliban during its takeover of the Afghan capital, Kabul, on August 15, 2021, as international troops withdrew from the country.

She says her family of four children is under relentless pressure from the Pakistani authorities.

"These days, we try to hide in one house or another because we fear a raid by the Pakistani police," she told Radio Azadi.

A woman who was recently deported to Afghanistan says they are trying to survive in hiding.

"We went into exile to protect our lives. But we have returned to uncertainty back in Afghanistan," she told Radio Azadi.

Compounding fears of what those being expelled by Pakistan face, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) warned of the extreme winter conditions and lack of facilities in Afghanistan.

"Many Afghan returnees are vulnerable, including women and children, who could lose their lives in a harsh winter if left without adequate shelter," the UNHCR said in a report released on December 8.

"People arriving at the border are exhausted and require urgent assistance as well as psychosocial support," the report added.

COP28 Summit Approves Proposal To Hold COP29 In Azerbaijan

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber speaks during a plenary stocktaking session at the COP28 UN climate summit in Dubai on December 11.
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber speaks during a plenary stocktaking session at the COP28 UN climate summit in Dubai on December 11.

The COP28 climate summit in Dubai on December 11 approved a proposal to hold the next iteration of the annual event in the South Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan. The country won support of Eastern European nations on December 9 following months of deadlock and after it reached agreement with neighbor and adversary Armenia that it would not veto the move.

Russian Foreign Ministry Summons Danish Ambassador Over His Statements In Media

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on December 11 that it summoned the Danish ambassador to Moscow, Jacob Henningsen, over his statements in the Danish media on the operations of foreign companies in Russia. The statement called Henningsen's unspecified statements "provocative." Hundreds of foreign companies have left the Russian market amid Western sanctions imposed on Russia over Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022.

Polish Truckers Lift Blockade At Ukraine Border Crossing

Poland-Ukraine border crossings had been blockaded by Polish haulers for weeks. (file photo)
Poland-Ukraine border crossings had been blockaded by Polish haulers for weeks. (file photo)

A border crossing between Poland and Ukraine was reopened on December 11 after Polish truckers lifted their blockade and allowed the resumption of heavy traffic between the two countries, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said. "From 2 p.m. (Ukraine time), regular traffic has been restored" at the Yahodyn-Dorohusk border crossing," Kubrakov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian Ambassador to Poland Vasyl Zvarych confirmed the information to RFE/RL. Polish truckers blocked the main land access points into Ukraine last month in protest at the European Union's relaxing some transport rules for Ukrainian trucks to access the bloc. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Court Orders Arrest Of Father Whose Daughter Carried Out Deadly School Shooting

Five other people were wounded in the fatal school shooting in Bryansk that left two dead.
Five other people were wounded in the fatal school shooting in Bryansk that left two dead.

A court in the Russian city of Bryansk, some 885 kilometers southwest of Moscow, ordered the arrest of Dmitry Afanaskin on December 10 on a charge of negligently keeping a firearm after his 14-year-old daughter shot a classmate and herself dead at school last week with his shotgun. The court also ordered the arrest of the school’s deputy principal, Larisa Katolikova, on a negligence charge. Earlier, the court ordered the arrest Sergei Poddubny, the director of the company that was responsible for the school's security, and one of his employees, Galina Chertkova. Five other people were wounded in the attack. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Imprisoned Uzbek Blogger Transferred To Colony Settlement

Incarcerated Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy (file photo)
Incarcerated Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy (file photo)

Tashkent-based human rights defender Abdurahmon Tashanov said on December 10 that blogger Otabek Sattoriy, who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison in May 2021 on charges of extortion and slander, has been transferred from a penal colony to a colony settlement -- a dormitory-like penitentiary located near an industrial facility where convicts work alongside regular employees. Human rights organizations have called on the Uzbek government to release Sattoriy, saying the case against him was politically motivated. Uzbek officials rejected the criticism, saying that Sattoriy’s arrest and conviction were lawful. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Austria Makes Conditional Schengen Offer To Bulgaria And Romania

A Romanian border guard stands on duty at a railway border-crossing point at the EU's external border with Moldova. (file photo)
A Romanian border guard stands on duty at a railway border-crossing point at the EU's external border with Moldova. (file photo)

Austria, which has led opposition within the European Union to Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen open-travel area, said on December 11 that it was willing to relent but only on plane travel and in exchange for tighter security at the EU's external border. At a meeting of the bloc's interior ministers a year ago, at which the two eastern European countries had hoped to get the green light to join the world's largest free-travel area, Austria said illegal immigration was still too high and Romania and Bulgaria needed to do more to prevent it before joining.

One Dead, Three Wounded In Russian Shelling of Kherson Region

The residents of Kherson have had to deal with regular Russian shelling since the city was liberated last year. (file photo)
The residents of Kherson have had to deal with regular Russian shelling since the city was liberated last year. (file photo)

A man was killed and three other people were wounded by Russian shelling of Ukraine's southern city of Kherson, the regional prosecutor's office reported on Telegram. "On December 11 in the afternoon, Russian forces shelled a Kherson suburban community," the prosecutor's office said, adding that a private house was hit. "The rescuers saved a wounded woman from under the rubble and retrieved the body of a man," the message said. Two other men were wounded by Russian shelling in Kherson city. To read the original story by RF/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Regulation Takes Force In Russia Obliging Those Barred From Traveling Abroad To Surrender Their Passports

(file photo)
(file photo)

A regulation obliging Russian citizens barred from traveling abroad, including people officially summoned to military service, to hand over their passports to official entities came into force on December 11. According to the law, adopted by the government on November 22, passports must be handed to state bodies within five days of their holders being officially barred from traveling to a foreign country. Travel documents that are not handed over to the state on time will be invalidated, the regulation says. The passports will be returned to their owners after the ban is lifted. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Extreme Cold Snap In Siberia Causes Power Cuts

Pedestrians walk along a street in the city of Yakutsk in Siberia, which has been hit with an extreme cold snap.
Pedestrians walk along a street in the city of Yakutsk in Siberia, which has been hit with an extreme cold snap.

Extreme cold has caused electricity outages in several of Russia's several Siberian regions. A number of cities saw temperatures fall to minus 40 degrees Celsius, while in the region of Yakutia, temperatures went as low as minus 60 degrees. In the region of Krasnoyarsk Krai, one person who used a gas-engine generator died of carbon monoxide poisoning. In the Irkutsk region, several towns and villages, including several streets in the regional capital, Irkutsk, were cut off for electricity over the weekend. Two other Siberian regions, Khakassia and Tyumen, have faced similar problems due to the extreme cold. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here and here

Updated

'Putin Must Lose': Zelenskiy Begins U.S. Visit With Plea For Additional Military Aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (front left) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (center right) in Washington, D.C., on December 11.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (front left) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (center right) in Washington, D.C., on December 11.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy began his first day in Washington on December 11 with a plea to U.S. military leaders for additional aid to his beleaguered nation, telling them that "we won't give up” the battle against Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion.

"Putin must lose. We know what to do. You can count on Ukraine, and we hope just as much to be able to count on you," Zelenskiy told a gathering at the National Defense University in Washington.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

In his introduction of the Ukrainian leader, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin promised "unshakable" support for Kyiv and warned that Putin still had hopes of winning his war against in Ukraine, despite the Kremlin's heavy losses in the conflict that begin in February 2022.

"Despite his crimes and despite his isolation, Putin still believes that he can outlast Ukraine and that he can outlast America. But he is wrong," Austin said as the crowd of military leaders and students applauded.

"America's commitments must be honored," he added as the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden struggles to convince many opposition Republicans of the need to continue to aid Kyiv.

Zelenskiy said that "if there’s anyone inspired by unresolved issues on Capitol Hill, it's just Putin and his secret clique. Ukrainians haven’t given up and won't give up."

Zelenskiy arrived in Washington on December 11 after a visit to Argentina as he continues to make his case for continued support as Ukraine braces for a second difficult winter of war with invading Russian forces.

Biden invited Zelenskiy to Washington to reaffirm his administration's backing of Kyiv amid a dispute with Republicans in Congress who are blocking tens of billions of dollars in much-needed military and economic aid for the embattled country.

As Zelenskiy prepares to make the case for deblocking the aid package in the United States, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on December 11 arrived in Brussels, where an EU summit on December 15 will decide whether to launch membership negotiations with Kyiv and also give it 50 billion euros ($53.8 billion) in economic aid.

Biden will receive Zelenskiy at the White House on December 12, spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said, and the Ukrainian leader will also address U.S. senators and meet with the new Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson.

“As Russia ramps up its missile and drone strikes against Ukraine, the leaders will discuss Ukraine’s urgent needs and the vital importance of the United States’ continued support at this critical moment,” Jean-Pierre said.

Zelenskiy’s office said the Ukrainian leader would hold a "series of meetings and discussions" focusing on defense cooperation between Washington and Kyiv, "particularly through joint projects on the production of weapons and air defense systems, as well as the coordination of efforts between our countries in the coming year."

Zelenskiy is also scheduled to meet with International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Kristalina Georgiva on December 11 as the organization's executive board prepares to release additional funds from the Ukraine’s $15.6 billion loan package.

Zelenskiy's visit comes after he canceled a video address to U.S. senators on December 5 as debate heated up on Biden’s nearly $106 billion request for funding for the wars in Ukraine and Israel.

The Biden administration asked Congress in October to pass the aid package, which would cover not only aid for Ukraine and Israel but also border security, but the Republican-controlled House rejected the request.

The planned Washington visit would follow Zelenskiy’s first trip to Latin America, where he thanked regional leaders on December 10 for their support of his country in its battle against the full-scale Russian invasion and the “fight for freedom and democracy.”

While in Argentina for the inauguration of new President Javier Milei, Zelenskiy met briefly with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a bid to resolve differences over Ukraine's bid for European Union membership.

Orban has maintained close ties with Putin and his nationalist government has argued against EU sanctions on Moscow over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Orban last week reportedly sent a letter to European Council President Charles Michel to demand that Ukraine's membership in the bloc be taken off the agenda at an EU summit next week.

Despite Zelenskiy's short meeting with Orban in Argentina, Hungarian Foreign Minister's Peter Szijjarto on December 11 said Budapest would not give in to "blackmail" and will not change its position.

"We continue to make our decisions in accordance with European and national interests and do not allow any kind of pressure, irrespective of who or where it comes from, or whether it's blackmail or promises," Szijjarto said on Facebook.

Kuleba on December 11 warned of "devastating" repercussions for Ukraine and the EU if the bloc does not agree on green-lighting the start of admission talks with Ukraine.

"I cannot imagine, I don't even want to talk about the devastating consequences that will occur shall the (European) Council fail to make this decision," Kuleba said ahead of the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels.

Kuleba said that Kyiv was “still struggling to understand these harsh statements from Hungary” and added that Ukraine implemented all the systemic judicial and education reforms that the bloc required for the start of accession talks.

"We did our homework," Kuleba said. "We expect the European Union to do its homework."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Residential Building Collapses In North Kazakhstan, Rescue Teams Look For Survivors

A one-story residential building collapsed in Kazakhstan’s northern city of Qostanai on December 11 amid fears that seven people may be trapped under the debris. Local emergency officials say the building, which included several apartments, collapsed following a blast that might have been caused by a gas leak. Rescue brigades are working at the site. Gas explosions occur frequently across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. The situation is especially dangerous when people use natural gas devices to help with heating in cold winters. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russia's Imprisoned Former 'Aluminum King' Gets Additional Prison Term For 1998 Murder Case

Anatoly Bykov attends a court hearing in Krasnoyarsk in September 2021. (file photo)
Anatoly Bykov attends a court hearing in Krasnoyarsk in September 2021. (file photo)

A court in Siberia on December 11 sentenced imprisoned businessman Anatoly Bykov to 12 years in prison for his involvement in ordering the assassination of a crime boss in 1998. Bykov is already serving a 17-year prison term for being involved in the murders of three people in 1994 and 2005. The court ruled that all the sentences will to some extent be served concurrently, putting his total prison time at 20 years. Bykov, who once co-owned the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant and was a regional lawmaker, had the nickname Russia's Aluminum King. He rejects all the charges, calling them politically motivated. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Navalny Transferred To New Facility, Whereabouts Unknown, Aide Says

Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)
Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Almost a week after being held incommunicado, imprisoned Russian opposition politician and Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny has been transferred to an unspecified site, according to one of his aides.

Kira Yarmysh, Navalny's press secretary, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on December 11 that one of Navalny's lawyers was informed at the IK-6 penal colony in the Vladimir region that his client "is no longer on their list of inmates."

"They refuse to say where [Navalny] was transferred to," Yarmysh added in the post.

Earlier in the day, Yarmysh said Navalny has been held incommunicado for almost a week, while his lawyers have not been allowed to meet with him in the penal colony.

Navalny is serving a total of 19 years in prison on extremism and other charges that he rejects as politically motivated.

His transfer to a harsher "special regime" facility was seen as a possibility when he had his sentence increased to 19 years in August after being found guilty of creating an extremist organization.

The move comes just days after Navalny's team launched a billboard campaign asking Russians to vote against President Vladimir Putin, who on December 8 said he would run in a March 17 presidential election.

Navalny's Anticorruption Foundation (FBK) paid for the billboards putting the messages "Russia" and "Happy New Year" on them. A QR code was also printed on the signs, and they led to a website titled Russia Without Putin, which encouraged voters not to cast ballots for Putin. Less than a day later, billboards with QR codes were outlawed.

Yarmysh, and another of Navalny's associates, Ruslan Shavetdinov, said earlier that Navalny felt extremely unwell in his cell in late November and early December after prison guards deprived him of food and fresh air, keeping him in solitary confinement and limiting his walks outside the cell.

Navalny's current isolation from the outside world coincided with a campaign his team launched on December 7 against Putin. That day, the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, set March 17, 2024, as the date for a presidential election.

The White House expressed concerns over reports about Navalny being kept incommunicado for nearly a week.

"We are deeply concerned about these reports," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on December 11 aboard Air Force One. "He should be released immediately."

Putin, who has led the country as a prime minister or president since 1999, is eligible to take part in two more presidential elections due to constitutional amendments introduced in 2020. He is expected to easily win the poll.

Navalny's previous sentence was handed down in 2021 after he arrived in Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack he blamed on the Kremlin, which the Kremlin denied.

He was Russia's loudest opposition voice and galvanized huge anti-government rallies before he was jailed.

Three of Navalny's former lawyers -- Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin, and Aleksei Lipster -- were taken into custody in October and charged with taking part an extremist group's activities because of their association with Navalny and his anti-corruption foundation.

Ukrainian Children Who Are Being Educated 'In Hiding' Risk Reprisals In Russian-Occupied Regions, Says Amnesty International

Ukrainian children take part in an online lesson amid Russia's ongoing invasion of their country. (file photo)
Ukrainian children take part in an online lesson amid Russia's ongoing invasion of their country. (file photo)

Parents in Russian-occupied territories who continue their children's education in the Ukrainian language face the risk of having their kids taken away and given up for adoption in Russia or sent to "reeducation" schools that teach in Russian, Amnesty International says.

In a study titled Ukraine: Children’s Education Is One More Casualty Of Russian Aggression, which was published on December 11, Amnesty says that besides the tragic loss of life and widespread destruction resulting from Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the systemic violations of the right of children to an education are an additional consequence Ukrainians have faced.

Russian forces still occupy some 20 percent of Ukraine's territory, and despite the risks of reprisals, some parents who live under Moscow's occupation have resorted to schooling their children "in hiding" under the Ukrainian curriculum.

“Amnesty International has obtained evidence from 23 education workers and 16 families with school-age children who were, or still are, living under Russian occupation, and documented how Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has led to significant and widespread interruptions of education in Ukraine," Amnesty regional researcher Anna Wright said about the study.

"In the Russian-occupied territories, intimidation and coercion are a daily reality for families, children, and teaching staff. No one is safe under Russia’s endless campaign of terror in Ukraine” Wright said.

The study quotes a Ukrainian education official as saying that children, parents, and teachers have become “partisans digging holes in their gardens to hide laptops and mobile phones or hiding in the attics and old sheds to catch the mobile [phone] signal.”

Those interviewed told Amnesty that Russian troops regularly patrol the streets and often conduct random searches, and those found in possession of teaching materials in Ukrainian or electronic devices that can be used for online learning risk being detained and having their children taken away.

Some parents, like a mother of two whose real name was changed to "Polina" for fear of reprisals, have chosen to stop their children's education altogether. Polina's children had been outside of their house only a few times during the first nine months of Russian occupation for fear of them being abducted and taken to Russia, she said.

Another mother, from an occupied village in the occupied Kherson region, told Amnesty that Russian troops came and told her that unless she sends her 15-year-old son to school the next day, he will be taken "to an orphanage in Russia." When the boy returned to school, he found it redecorated with Russian symbols and guarded by Russian soldiers.

Teachers who refuse to return to teach in schools in Russian-occupied areas are either going into hiding or fleeing.

A teacher from occupied Berdyansk in the Zaporizhzhya region told Amnesty that children are forced to study in Russian and sing the Russian national anthem under the threat of being sent away for “re-education in Russian orphanages.” The teacher left and now gives online lessons to children from occupied territories from somewhere else in free Ukraine.

Some parents have enrolled their children in secret online learning courses despite the risks of being caught and facing grave consequences.

A father from Berdyansk told Amnesty that, in order to allow his son to study in a Ukrainian school online in the afternoons, he goes on a watch outside while his wife stands by the window. If he gives her a signal that someone is approaching the house, the mother and the son will erase any evidence of online learning and hide the laptop.

“The only way to help Ukraine heal and to make Ukrainian children’s present and future less painful, is for Russia to end the war in Ukraine, which is an act of aggression under international law,” said Wright.

“During war or occupation, all parties remain bound by international humanitarian and human rights law. Ensuring children’s right to access to quality education is one such duty, and it must be fully respected,” she said.

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