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Afghanistan Focus Of NATO's First Central Asia Talks

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer speaks in Astana.
ASTANA (Reuters) -- NATO has held its first meeting in Central Asia to discuss issues ranging from Afghanistan to Caspian Sea cooperation.

The talks in the Kazakh capital take place days after Kyrgyzstan, one of the region's former Soviet republics, reversed its decision to shut down a U.S. military air base used to support operations in Afghanistan.

"Instability in Afghanistan affects Central Asia more than any other region -- from terrorism to drug-trafficking," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at a lecture at the Kazakh Academy of State.

"By the same token, no region has more to gain from stability in Afghanistan than Central Asia," he said, ahead of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council meeting on June 26.

Central Asia has gained significance for Washington as it boosts its Afghan force to fight the resurgent Taliban.

Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are, together with Russia, parts of a corridor along which the United States plans to supply its Afghan troops following attacks on convoys in Pakistan.

Earlier this week, Kyrgyzstan said its security service officers fought and killed five Islamist militants from a group long linked to Afghanistan's Taliban.

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CPJ Condemns Kyrgyz Threat To Block Media Outlet Kloop's Websites Over Article

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned a warning by Kyrgyz authorities that threatens to block the websites of investigative journalist outlet Kloop if it does not take down an article over the controversy surrounding the cost of reconstructing public facilities destroyed in border clashes with Tajikistan last year.

"Kyrgyzstan authorities' attempt to censor Kloop, one of the country's most respected news outlets, once again shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of its false information law, which should never have been enacted," said Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.

While Kyrgyzstan is known for having a vibrant and pluralistic media environment compared to its Central Asian neighbors, human rights groups have warned that the climate for free expression has deteriorated since President Sadyr Japarov first came to power in October 2020, especially with the approval of the Law on Protection from False Information, adopted in August 2021.

In late October, Kyrgyz authorities blocked the local-language websites of RFE/RL, known as Radio Azattyk, after it refused to take down a video about deadly clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

In the case of Kloop, the Ministry Of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policies objected to part of a January 20 report regarding allegations that the state Community Development and Investment Agency (ARIS) had inflated its construction costs.

On January 25, Kloop reported that ARIS denied the allegations, but the ministry sent a letter dated February 1 that demanded Kloop "immediately" remove or amend the January 25 article, as ARIS objected to the summary of its denial, the article's headline, and the mention of a government official who accused the agency of inflating its costs.

Failure to obey the demand would result in Kloop's websites being blocked for at least two months under the false-information law.

Kloop has denied the article contains any false information and has refused to take it down.

"Authorities should withdraw their threat to block Kloop's website, repeal the false information law, and cease their escalating repression of the independent press," the CPJ's Said added.

In the case of RFE/RL, the video in question was produced by Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

Kyrgyz officials have claimed that the authors of the video "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.

In response, RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.

Days after the blocking of the RFE/RL local websites, the government froze Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities have also suspended the accreditation of 11 RFE/RL correspondents at parliament.

RFE/RL has said it is "will pursue all available legal means to preserve our operations in the country."

Dozens of media organizations, domestic and international rights groups, Kyrgyz politicians, and lawmakers have urged the government to unblock Radio Azattyk's websites.

EU 'Deeply Disturbed' Over Navalny Solitary Reports On Second Anniversary Of Sentencing

Aleksei Navalny appears on a video link from prison for his trial in Moscow in October 2022.

The European Union, marking the second anniversary of the "politically motivated" sentencing of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, says it is "deeply disturbed" over reports of his treatment behind bars.

The 46-year-old Kremlin critic was handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole when he was medically evacuated in a coma after suffering a near-fatal poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on Russian security operatives acting at President Vladimir Putin's behest.

The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case. In March 2022, Navalny was handed a separate nine-year prison term on charges of contempt and embezzlement through fraud that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.

"The verdict came after A. Navalny's arbitrary arrest and imprisonment upon his return to Russia after receiving life-saving medical care in Berlin. He needed it after an attempted murder in Russia in August 2020 using a chemical-warfare nerve agent prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a state party," the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in a statement to mark the second anniversary of the sentencing on February 2.

Concern has been growing in recent months over Navalny's health and his treatment in prison.

Navalny, who has been a persistent thorn in Putin's side by exposing corruption and organizing pro-democracy protests, said on social media on February 1 that he was being placed in a solitary confinement cell for six months.

That comes on top of spending more than 100 days in solitary in the past six months for what he and his supporters say are dubious reasons.

"The main torment of imprisonment is, of course, the inability to see the faces of your family, to talk to your loved ones. I haven't had any visits for 8 months and yesterday I was told that I'd be transferred to a cell-type facility for the maximum possible term of 6 months," he wrote on Twitter.

"Even maniacs and serial killers serving life sentences have the right for meetings, but I do not," he added.

"When such thing happens to you, you understand even more acutely how important it is to fight this unscrupulous government, how important it is to do at least something to free Russia from the yoke of these scoundrels from Russia and dispel the dope with which they have enveloped the heads of millions," he added.

Since January 1, dozens of lawmakers, lawyers, and physicians in Russia have urged Putin, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the presidential Council for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of Navalny amid reports his health has dramatically worsened.

"Reports of repeated ill-treatment, physical and psychological torture by the Russian prison authorities against A. Navalny are deeply disturbing. The Russian authorities are responsible for his safety and health, and we call them to account," Borrell said in his statement.

He added that the EU "stands in solidarity" with Navalny and others, including ordinary Russian citizens, "who dare to speak the truth despite the great risk to themselves."

Pakistani Troops Kill Two Militants In Raid Near Afghan Border

The militants killed during the raid had been involved in past attacks on security forces, the military said. (file photo)

Troops have raided a militant hideout in a former Pakistani Taliban stronghold near the border with Afghanistan, triggering a shoot-out that killed two insurgents, the Pakistani military said. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif summoned the country's opposition leader to forge a response to the recent surge in violence, including a mosque bombing that killed 101 people. Troops on February 3 recovered a cache of weapons in a militant hideout in North Waziristan, a district of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The militants killed during the raid had been involved in past attacks on security forces, the military said. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Poland Expects 40 Countries To Oppose Russian Athletes At Olympics

Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk gives an interview with Reuters at his office in Warsaw, Poland February 2,

Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk on February 2 said he expected several dozen countries to come out against the inclusion of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics. "I think that next week...a very firm stance on the part of representatives from these 40 countries will see the light of day," he told state television. The position will "very clearly oppose the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the Olympic Games," he added. He said he believed the countries would notably include members of the European Union and Britain.

After Netanyahu Talks, Macron Warns Of Iran Nuclear 'Consequences'

French President Emmanuel Macron (file photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron denounced late on February 2 the "headlong rush" of Iran's nuclear program after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Paris to seek a stronger European stance against Tehran. In a statement released after a dinner meeting in the Elysee Palace, Macron warned that Tehran continuing with the atomic project "would inevitably have consequences." Israel has long accused Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, while Tehran insists its nuclear program is aimed solely at generating energy.

Ukraine's Allies Push IMF To Approve $14 Billion-$16 Billion Loan

Ukraine's allies are pushing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to finalize plans for a multibillion-dollar lending program, the Financial Times reported on February 3. IMF representatives are planning to meet Ukrainian officials in mid-February to advance discussions over a loan that could range from $14 billion to $16 billion, the report said, citing officials familiar with the talks. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.


EU, Ukraine Leaders Meet In Kyiv Amid Country-Wide Air-Raid Alert

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (left) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a joint meeting of the Government of Ukraine and the European Commission. Kyiv, 02Feb2023

Leaders of the European Union and Ukraine are holding a landmark meeting in Kyiv amid air-raid alerts in the capital and across Ukraine.

The alerts on February 3 were lifted after less than two hours, and there were no immediate reports of any air strikes by Russia.

In recent months, Russian missile strikes have caused extensive damage to Ukraine's electricity grid in the depths of winter and claimed victims among civilians.

The top-level meeting in Kyiv between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the EU leadership is expected to discuss the European Union's support for Kyiv in the face of Russia's invasion and Ukraine's bid for membership in the 27-member bloc.

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council that groups the leaders of the 27 EU members, reassured Ukraine of the bloc's unwavering support both against Russia's aggression and on its path to eventual integration in the bloc.

"There will be no let up in our resolve. We will also support you every step of the way on your journey to the EU," Michel, who arrived in Kyiv on February 3, said on Twitter, where he posted a photo of himself in the Ukrainian capital.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who arrived in Kyiv on February 2 with a team of 15 commissioners, announced at a joint news conference with Zelenskiy that the EU will issue a fresh package sanctions against Russia -- the 10th since the start of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago.

Von der Leyen and Michel went into a fresh round of talks with Zelenskiy on February 3.

A joint EU-Ukraine statement seen by Reuters was also expected to reaffirm the bloc's support for Ukraine against Russia's invasion "for as long as it takes," the news agency reported.

Zelenskiy said later on February 2 that Ukraine deserves to start EU accession talks this year. He said further integration with the bloc would inspire Ukrainians and give them "motivation" to fight against Russian troops.

Ukraine was granted candidate status in June.

However, Brussels has been firm in its position that while it backs Ukraine's bid, the country will need to implement a wide array of democratic and economic reforms and root out endemic corruption before it can be admitted, and that the admission process could take many years.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Zelenskiy has pledged to root out entrenched corruption that has weakened the effectiveness of state institutions even as the country faced an increasingly aggressive Russia since 2014, culminating with Moscow's unprovoked invasion.

Several high-ranking officials' homes were raided by anti-corruption agents on February 1 in a second sweep in a week.

Von der Leyen commended the Ukrainian government for taking swift action against corruption.

"Your determination to join the European Union is impressive," she said.

"I'm comforted to see that your anti-corruption bodies are on alert and effective in detecting corruption cases.... I also commend you on reacting so rapidly at the political level to make sure that the fight against corruption is delivering tangible results and is further stepped up," von der Leyen concluded.

Responding to a remark by Zelenskiy, who said Kyiv hopes the bloc's sanctions campaign will gain momentum again after appearing to have "slightly slowed down" recently, von der Leyen said:

"We will introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products, and by February 24 -- exactly one year since the invasion started -- we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place."

The summit comes after the EU commissioners met their counterparts in the Ukrainian government for the first-ever joint meeting on February 2.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Russians Pressing In Multiple Directions In Donetsk Amid Signs Of Major Offensive, Ukraine Says

Police inspect a crater near a site of a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile strike in Kramatorsk on February 2.

Russian troops are not slowing their push in several areas of the Donetsk region despite suffering heavy losses, the Ukrainian military said on February 3, amid indications that Moscow is preparing for a major push in the east to break months of stalemate.

The Russian attacks over the past 24 hours have been concentrated mainly on four directions -- Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka -- Ukraine's General Staff reported in its morning briefing on February 3.

At the same time, the General Staff said, Russia's continued attacks on Ukraine's civilian and infrastructure objectives had resulted in civilian deaths and damage.

"The Russian Federation does not abandon its intentions to destroy the critical infrastructure of our state, continues to strike civilian objectives and homes of the civilian population. Over the past day, the enemy launched four rocket attacks, two of which hit the civilian infrastructure of the city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk, as well as five air strikes," the military said.

A previous missile strike on an apartment block in Kramatorsk killed at least five people on February 1.

Russian forces continued to launch rocket attacks on civilian targets in Kherson and Mykolayiv, the military said, adding, "Peaceful citizens were killed and injured by enemy strikes."

The Russian military has repeatedly justified its attacks on Ukrainian cities as necessary to destroy Ukrainian military equipment and has denied targeting civilians despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said later on February 2 in his nightly video address that the Russian Army still had the resources to attempt offensive actions, although "strategically, Russia's defeat is already clear."

The Russian military is "looking for options to try to change the course of the war" and trying to "use the potential of the territory it currently controls to serve its aggression," Zelenskiy said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"We must continue what we are doing: strengthen our resilience, be absolutely united in our desire to provide our army and all defenders with the necessary weapons and equipment," he said.

Ukrainians must speak with one voice to the world regarding defense supplies and significantly increase global pressure on Russia every month, he said.

"The enemy should come out of this much more weakened than they foresee for themselves in the worst-case scenario," Zelenskiy said.

Ukraine last week won pledges from the United States and Germany to send tanks to help it defend itself.

Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the tank shipments on February 2 in a speech at events marking the 80th anniversary of the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany in Stalingrad.

Putin, speaking in the southern city of Volgograd, said Russia had an answer for the tanks, in particular the German Leopards, and said the use of armored vehicles “will not end the matter."

The Russian Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying that Russia was being threatened by German tanks "again" as it was during World War II, drawing a false parallel between the Soviet Union's defensive war against Nazi Germany and Moscow's war of choice in Ukraine.

"We aren't sending tanks to their borders, but we have something to respond with, and it won't be just about using armored vehicles. Everyone should understand this," he added.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

U.S. Judge Clears Way For Seizure Of $5.4 Million In Assets Belonging To Russian Oligarch

Konstantin Malofeyev (file photo)

A federal district judge in New York ruled on February 2 that prosecutors may seize $5.4 million belonging to Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, paving the way for the funds to be used to help rebuild Ukraine. The ruling marked the first forfeiture order for a Russian oligarch's assets since the Justice Department in 2022 launched a task force aimed at squeezing the finances of Russian President Vladimir Putin's allies in response to the invasion of Ukraine. U.S. authorities have accused Malofeyev of financing separatists in Crimea. Malofeyev has denied financing the separatists. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Serbia Could Become 'Pariah' If Normalization Plan Over Kosovo Rejected, Vucic Warns

Members of the Serbian parliament hold up a banner reading, "Vucic, you betrayed Kosovo," during a special session in Belgrade on February 2.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has warned that Serbia could become a “European pariah” completely isolated from the rest of the continent and without access to European funds if it rejects a Western plan for normalizing relations with Kosovo.

Vucic made the comments in a speech to parliament on February 2 in which he faced a hostile response from opposition politicians, who accused him of buckling under pressure from the United States and the European Union to agree to the plan.

Vucic said 90 percent of what has been made public about the proposal so far is correct and said there are good things in the plan. But he said that he would discuss only what is worst for Serbia, adding that more important than the plan is "the political framework, the momentum in which everything happens."

Vucic said the plan stipulates that Serbia wouldn’t object to Kosovo’s inclusion in international organizations, though it wouldn’t have to formally recognize its statehood.

He reiterated that the European-American diplomatic team told him during a meeting in Belgrade last month that there will be consequences if Serbia does not accept the plan. This includes the halting of the accession negotiations with the European Union and the withdrawal of current and future investments in the country, he said.

“We would be a European pariah, completely isolated. No one would talk to us," Vucic said. "We would not have access to European funds," adding that it is in Serbia's "vital interest" to stay on a path to EU membership.

He also stated that Serbia would not be seen as an ally in the conflict in Ukraine “due to the fact that Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia."

Vucic said that Serbia's policy will be to preserve peace and stability at all costs and that Belgrade will continue to back the formation of an association of municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has repeatedly rejected the creation of the association, which was part of an earlier agreement between the parties reached in 2013.

During his speech, Vucic was interrupted by members of the right-wing opposition, who engaged in shouting matches and scuffled with members of Vucic’s ruling party as they urged parliament to reject the plan and accused Vucic of betraying Serbia.

Opposition members chanted, “Treason! Treason!” and, “We won’t give up Kosovo.” They also demanded Vucic's resignation.

He responded by shouting at the protesting lawmakers that they are “thieves and traitors” and said capitulation and surrender were not options.

Kosovo broke away from Serbia after a war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade has never recognized it. Belgrade and Pristina have been in an EU-led dialogue on the normalization of relations since 2011.

The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has been a source of tension in the Balkans since the 1998-99 war, which ended with a NATO bombing campaign. With concern rising about Russia’s influence in the region in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the United States and the European Union recently stepped up efforts to reach a deal to normalize relations.

Vucic said the purpose of the parliamentary session was not to shift the responsibility to the parliament or to the people.

"The purpose is to appear in front of you and the citizens and honestly and openly share what lies ahead and what we are facing," said Vucic. He said he has signed nothing so far and talks on the proposal continue.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Vucic ahead of his speech to parliament to thank him for his “openness to the EU proposal to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

Blinken said on Twitter that this is “of essential importance for the European future of Serbia.”

With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters

U.S. Ambassador's Views On Hungary 'Irrelevant,' Foreign Minister Says

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto (left) greets Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during a visit to Moscow in July.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has accused the U.S. ambassador of trying to interfere in Hungary's internal affairs. At a news conference in Budapest, Szijjarto lashed out at Ambassador David Pressman's comments referring to Hungary's approach to the war in Ukraine as pushing "policies endorsed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin." Szijjarto called Pressman's comments "completely irrelevant" and said it was not Pressman's place to "interfere in Hungary's internal affairs." Pressman has been vocal about a growing wave of anti-American sentiment in Hungary and Hungary's reluctance to join the EU sanctions on Moscow for its war in Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.


Baltics, Poland Chide IOC For Stance On Russian, Belarusian Athletes At 2024 Olympics

Athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee attend a welcoming ceremony after returning from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Red Square in Moscow in August 2021.

The sports ministers of the three Baltic states and Poland say efforts to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international sports competitions under a neutral flag "legitimize the political decisions and extensive propaganda of these countries" and allow them to use sport as a distraction from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The ministers published a joint statement on February 2 saying efforts by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to restore the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, who were banned after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, were ill-timed given the military conflict continues.

"We must ensure justice and accountability by bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide," the statement said.

"Given the autonomy of the sports movement, we call on all international sports bodies to adopt this firm approach. Since the decision taken by the IOC Executive Board on February 28, 2022, the circumstances have not changed," it added, referring to the IOC decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions just days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Poland and the Baltic countries for their "principled" position.

"The IOC's attempt to return athletes from RF & Belarus to the Olympics is a legitimization of the criminal aggression against Ukraine," he said on Twitter. "We won't allow sport to be used against humanity & for war propaganda!"

The United States also weighed in on the question on February 2, saying it backs allowing athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutrals in the Olympics with no display of national flags or emblems.

If athletes are invited to an international event such as the Olympics, "it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

Criticism of the IOC started last month, when it indicated it favored neutral-status teams from Russia and Belarus, which has lent Moscow logistical support to stage the invasion and subsequent war, at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The IOC has since backtracked, saying last week that sporting sanctions on the two countries were "not negotiable." But some countries remain angered by the Olympic body, saying it hasn't ruled out the possibility of Russian and Belarusian athletes participating under a neutral flag.

"We strongly appreciate all international sports organizations and federations that have removed players and representatives of Russia and Belarus from international competitions and from their organizations, and we urge them not to change their position until Russia and Belarus stop their aggression against Ukraine," the statement from Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland said.

"Bearing in mind the autonomy of the sports movement, we, the Ministers of Sport of the Baltic States and Poland, are convinced that restoring the participation of Russians and Belarusians in international competitions may also put the players in a difficult situation, imposing additional pressure on them related to competing with Russians and Belarusians or being with them and their fans at sporting events," it added.

Special Kosovo Court Upholds Most Convictions Of Two Veterans

Nasim Haradinaj (left) and Hysni Gucati (right) appear at the Specialist Chambers in The Hague in May 2022. (combo photo)

Appeals judges at a European Union-backed court have upheld most of the convictions of two leaders of a Kosovo war veterans' association who were found guilty last year of witness intimidation and obstructing justice. The appeals panel of The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers overturned one conviction of Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj but upheld four others. Their original sentences of 4 1/2 years were reduced by three months. The judges said that it was "fundamental to the fulfilment of the Specialist Chambers' mission that individuals who come to give evidence, often about traumatic or difficult experiences, may do so without fear." To read the original story by AP, click here.

Finland, Sweden Committed To Joint NATO Accession, Prime Ministers Say

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson hold a joint news conference at the government headquarters in Stockholm on February 2.

Finland and Sweden remain committed to joining NATO at the same time despite Turkey's opposition to the Swedish candidacy, the two countries' prime ministers said in Stockholm on February 2. Turkey has said it could approve Finland's NATO membership application ahead of Sweden's, but the Finnish president and foreign minister have both rejected this idea, arguing that the security of the two Nordic countries is mutually dependent. "I don't like this atmosphere, position, where Sweden is presented as a sort of trouble child in the classroom. I don't think this is the case," Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

EU Bank Seeks Pledges Of More Than $2.4 Billion For Ukraine This Year

The European Union's investment bank has called for more budget guarantees from the bloc's 27 members to match or exceed this year the 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) spent in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022. The European Investment Bank (EIB), the EU's lending arm, said it had already disbursed 1.7 billion euros and had another 540 million for ongoing projects. EIB head Werner Hoyer said much more would be needed to rebuild the country from the war, a task the World Bank last September estimated at $350 billion. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Rights Group Says At Least 185 Arrested In Iran's Zahedan In Past Month

Demonstrators rally in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, where people have been holding protest rallies every Friday since September 30.

A rights group says at least 185 citizens in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan have been arrested in the past month by security forces trying to stifle widespread dissent.

Haalvsh, a group that monitors rights violations of the Sunni minority in Iran, says that it has been able to verify the identity of 125 of the detainees, but added that, due Internet disruptioand repeated threats to families by the security authorities, the number of detainees is estimated at 185 or even higher.

People in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been holding protest rallies every Friday since September 30, when a demonstration turned deadly as security forces of the Islamic republic cracked down hard on demonstrators.

During the so-called Bloody Friday massacre in Zahedan, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces during unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly.

The protests grew even larger following the news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander.

On January 31, the Baloch Activists Campaign reported that plainclothes security officers arrested two Baluch youths in Zahedan and took them to an unknown location. The campaign has identified the pair as Dawood Rakhshani and Akbar Gorgij.

Anger over Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran, but only account for about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iranian Filmmaker Panahi On Hunger Strike To Protest 'Inhumane' Judiciary

Award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi (file photo)

Imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has gone on hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

"I will refuse to eat and drink any food and medicine until the time of my release. I will remain in this state until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison," the director said in a statement released by his wife, Tahereh Saeedi, and his son, Panah Panahi, on their Instagram accounts.

Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.

Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.

Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Eight Dead In Construction Site Fire In Crimea, Says Russian-Installed Governor

Firefighters battle a deadly blaze at an accommodation facility for construction workers in Crimea on February 2.

At least eight people died in the Crimean city of Sevastopol after an overnight fire in construction workers' temporary accommodation, Russian officials said on February 2. Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Moscow-appointed governor of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, said the fire had broken out in a dormitory for workers building the Tavrida Highway, a new road linking the cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol. Russia's Emergencies Ministry said eight people had died and two were injured. Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and unilaterally annexed it. Kyiv has said it plans to retake the peninsula by force. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Bulgarian President Dissolves Parliament, Sets Early Elections For April 2

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has signed a decree dissolving the parliament and setting April 2 as the date for early elections -- the country's fifth in two years -- after an inconclusive October vote failed to produce a government.

Radev on February 2 also reappointed Galab Donev as caretaker prime minister for the interim period.

The composition of the caretaker government remained almost unchanged, with the exception of outgoing Culture Minister Velislav Minekov, who has been replaced by conductor Nayden Todorov.

Radev had already announced early elections would be needed after Bulgaria's Socialist Party (BSP) said on January 24 that it had failed to form a government and had returned the unfulfilled mandate to the president.

It was the third and final opportunity for a government to be formed under the current legislature, which resulted from the October 2 elections.

Before the socialists' attempt at forming a coalition, the two strongest groups in Bulgaria’s parliament -- the center-right GERB party and the reformist We Continue The Change party, which finished first and second in the October voting -- had each tried and failed to find enough support to form their own governments.

Radev then chose the BSP to fulfill the mandate.

Under the Bulgarian Constitution, Radev was obliged to disband parliament and schedule elections within 60 days of issuing the dissolution decree.

The GERB party of Boyko Borisov, who spent three divisive tenures as prime minister between 2009 and 2021, has been the target of widespread corruption accusations, and most groups have dismissed talk of cooperation with Borisov.

The continuing political crisis is expected to impede the European Union's poorest country's plans to join the euro zone at the end of this year, as well as the timely receipt of billions of euros in EU recovery funds.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

France Seizes Iran Assault Rifles, Missiles Heading To Yemen

Assault rifles and missiles seized by the French Navy lie on the deck of a ship at an undisclosed location on February 1.

French naval forces in January seized thousands of assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles in the Gulf of Oman coming from Iran and heading to Yemen's Huthi rebels, officials said on February 2, the latest such seizure amid the Middle Eastern nation’s long-running civil war. While Iran denied being involved, images of the weapons released by the U.S. military's Central Command showed them to be similar to others captured by American forces in other shipments linked to Tehran. The seizure occurred on January 15. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Austria Expels Four Russian Diplomats

The Russian Embassy in Vienna (file photo)

The Austrian Foreign Ministry has announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats for what it said were actions incompatible with their diplomatic status, adding that they must leave the country by February 8. The ministry said in a statement on February 2 that two diplomats worked at the Russian Embassy while the other two were members of Russia's mission to the United Nations in Vienna. No further details were given. There was no immediate reaction from Moscow. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Pakistan Says Peshawar Mosque Bomber Wore Police Uniform, Breached Security On Motorbike

The bombing at a mosque in Peshawar on January 30 was the deadliest to hit the northwestern Pakistani city in a decade.

The suicide bomber who killed more than 100 people at a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar this week wore a police uniform and entered the high-security area on a motorbike, a Pakistani provincial police chief said. The bomber behind the attack has been identified as a member of a militant network, the police chief of Khyber Pashtunkhwa Province, Moazzam Jah Ansari, told reporters without giving further details. The bombing was the deadliest in a decade to hit Peshawar, a northwestern city that has suffered decades of Islamist militant violence. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.


EU Says It Will Slap Russia With More Sanctions By First Anniversary Of War

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (center), Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (right), and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pose for a picture with other officials before the start of a Ukraine-EU summit in Kyiv on February 2.

The European Union says it plans to hit Russia with a fresh package of punitive measures -- the 10th since the start of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago -- as the bloc prepares to hold a summit with Ukraine's leadership in the capital, Kyiv.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a team of 15 commissioners arrived in Kyiv on February 2 for the first-ever joint meeting with Ukraine's government, with Russia's invasion, launched on February 24 last year, and Ukraine's bid for membership to the bloc on the agenda.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after their meeting, von der Leyen said that sanctions have been exacting a heavy price on Moscow, "throwing it back by a generation," with the EU price cap on oil alone making Russia lose some 160 million euros ($176 million) daily.

Responding to a remark by Zelenskiy, who said Kyiv hopes the bloc's sanctions campaign will gain momentum again after appearing to have "slightly slowed down" recently, von der Leyen said the EU would "introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products, and by the 24th of February -- exactly one year since the invasion started -- we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place."

Von der Leyen also commended the Ukrainian government for taking swift action against corruption -- one of the main conditions advanced by Brussels as mandatory for Kyiv's progress on its path to eventual EU membership.

Ukraine was granted candidate status for membership in the 27-member bloc in June, and Zelenskiy has pledged to root out entrenched corruption that has weakened the effectiveness of state institutions even as the country faced an increasingly aggressive Russia since 2014, culminating in Moscow's unprovoked full-scale invasion.

Zelenskiy said later on February 2 that Ukraine deserves to start EU accession talks this year. He said further integration with the bloc would inspire Ukrainians and give them "motivation" to fight against Russian troops.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Von der Leyen's visit comes a day after several high-ranking officials' homes were raided by anti-corruption agents in a second sweep in a week.

"Your determination to join the European Union is impressive," von der Leyen said.

"I'm comforted to see that your anti-corruption bodies are on alert and effective in detecting corruption cases.... I also commend you on reacting so rapidly at the political level to make sure that the fight against corruption is delivering tangible results and is further stepped up," she added.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi are among the members of the delegation to arrive in Kyiv on February 2.

"Arrived in Kyiv to convey EU’s strongest message of support to all Ukrainians defending their country,” Borrell wrote on Twitter, adding, "EU assistance has reached 50 billion euros [$55 billion] since the start of Russia’s war. Europe stood united with Ukraine from day one. And will still stand with you to win and rebuild."

"The meeting will be an opportunity to exchange on the many areas of cooperation between the EU and Ukraine," a commission statement said, calling the event a "strong symbol" of EU support for Ukraine "in the face of Russia's unprovoked and unjustified aggression."

European Council President Charles Michel will arrive for a summit meeting on February 3.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has called the meetings "two extremely important events" for his country's European integration.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Iran Blames Israel For Isfahan Drone Attack, Vows Revenge

Eyewitness footage purportedly showing the moment of the explosion at a military industry factory in Isfahan, Iran.

Iran blames Israel for a drone attack on a military factory near the central city of Isfahan, the semiofficial ISNA news agency said on February 2, vowing revenge. In a letter to the UN chief, Iran's UN envoy, Amir Saeid Iravani, said a primary investigation suggested Israel was responsible for the attack on January 28. The attack came amid tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear activity and its supply of arms -- including long-range "suicide drones"-- for Russia's war in Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.


Prominent Political Ally Of Pakistan's Ex-PM Khan Arrested

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed served as interior minister in Imran Khan's government. (file photo)

A prominent Pakistani politician who is also a close ally of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested after police raided his home near Islamabad.

Police said on February 2 that Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who served as interior minister in Khan's government that lost power in April, has accused former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari of plotting to kill Khan.

Islamabad police were expected to bring Ahmed to court and ask for permission to question him to produce evidence supporting his accusation against Zardari.

Ahmed told the media after his arrest that security forces mistreated him, barging into his home in the dark and beating up his staff.

Ahmed is the leader of the Awami Muslim League, a small political party that was in the governing coalition with Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party.

Khan voiced his "strong protest" at Ahmed's arrest in a message on Twitter.

Ahmed's arrest early on February 2 came just hours after Fawad Chaudhry, an information minister in Khan's government and a prominent leader in PTI, was released on bail by an Islamabad court after spending a week in detention.

Chaudhry was arrested on January 25 on charges of "threatening and intimidating" the chief of the country's Election Commission and other members of the election oversight body.

Khan, a 70-year-old former cricket superstar who still enjoys huge popularity as the main opposition leader, was wounded in a gun attack while leading a march toward the capital, Islamabad, in November, to push for early elections.

One of his supporters was killed and several others were wounded in the shooting.

In October, the Election Commission disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years after finding he had unlawfully sold state gifts and concealed assets as prime minister.

Khan has rejected the accusation, and claimed he was toppled in a plot by Sharif and the United States, claims they both deny.

With reporting by AP and AFP

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