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Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine Top Agenda For NATO Defense Ministers

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) meets with Polish soldiers after signing a memorandum on cooperation between the Polish and U.S. militaries in Krakow.
KRAKOW (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers have gathered in Krakow, Poland, for two days of talks expected to focus on a review of the alliance's operations in Afghanistan.

The talks are considered informal, but their discussions will help create the agenda of the next summit of NATO heads of state and government, which is scheduled for April 3-4.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the challenges ahead include getting more troop contributions for the fight against militants, and to help provide security for the country's presidential elections in August.

"The United States, I'm quite sure, will discuss where their thinking is on strategy," Appathurai said. "We will need to discuss how to do election support. The elections are August 20, I believe. And NATO will play its part with extra forces."

Other key themes of talks in Krakow are NATO support to the expanding national army, the possibilities of enhancing support for the national police force, and a review of the international community's political-military plan.

'Disappointing' Reaction

U.S. President Barack Obama announced earlier this week that he will send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan -- raising the total number of U.S. troops deployed there to more than 50,000.

Analysts say the timing of Obama's announcement, just ahead of the Krakow talks, could increase pressure on other NATO countries to send more troops.

Speaking on February 18 as he flew to Krakow, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington expects its NATO allies to contribute more troops ahead of the election. Gates said the response so far has been "disappointing."

Indeed, several European officials in Krakow have expressed reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan -- where military commanders say at least 10,000 additional soldiers are needed to provide security ahead of presidential elections in August.

Germany confirmed on February 19 that it would send 600 more soldiers to Afghanistan. But German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung also said that he opposes U.S. plans to use the embryonic NATO Response Force to provide security before and during the Afghan elections. Jung said the NATO Response Force is not meant to be used as a reserve force.

British Defense Secretary John Hutton told reporters his initial view is that other countries must make troop contributions ahead of any extra contribution from the United Kingdom. Britain currently has 8,300 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan -- many of them in the volatile south. That makes the British force second only to the United States in terms of the number of troops deployed.

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich also ruled out any additional troop deployments to Afghanistan in the near future. Poland currently has about 1,600 soldiers on the ground there.

'See Other Allies Step Up'

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that, if alliance members are unable or unwilling to contribute more troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, they should instead disburse more reconstruction aid.

"2009 will see an infusion of United States forces in this operation," he said. "And I strongly hope that we will also see the other allies step up with more forces, and where that is not possible, with more civilian aid -- development cooperation and reconstruction aid. I think it is fair and I think also politically healthy for the alliance if we have a fair sharing of the burdens in this alliance and in this mission between all of the allies."

He added that the Afghan government could also be making a bigger contribution.

"The Afghan government could make a greater effort to root out corruption and increase efficiency," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We, the ISAF nations, must provide more forces, more trainers, and election support in a more joined-up approach."

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, says extra troops are badly needed. McKiernan told journalists in Washington on February 18 that the coming year will be "tough" for foreign forces in Afghanistan.

"I will use most of those [additional U.S.] forces in the southern part of Afghanistan, an area where we do not have sufficient security presence, an area that has deteriorated somewhat, an area where we need persistent security presence in order to fight a counterinsurgency and to shape, clear, hold, and build in support of the rapidly developing Afghan capacity," McKiernan said.

McKiernan said the deployment of 17,000 additional U.S. troops should be completed in time for them to help provide security for the presidential vote.

'Windows Of Security'

General Richard Blanchette, an ISAF spokesman, told reporters in Kabul that countries that do not send more troops should send more financial aid.

"We have always said that we needed to have more troops so that we can establish more of these windows of security," Blanchette said. "But we have to ensure we have enough resources from the international community to complete this, because once you have that security, you have to discuss with your local authorities what you want to do with that new environment and then to have the resources to build what is required, something that would make a change in the life of the Afghan people."

In Krakow on February 20, NATO defense ministers will review the alliance's ongoing transformation -- including the implementation of the NATO Response Force, and reforms within NATO headquarters.

Later in the day, the NATO-Ukraine Commission will review defense and security-sector reform in Ukraine and discuss the national program currently being developed.

Finally, the NATO-Georgia Commission will convene to discuss NATO's assistance to Georgia in the aftermath of its war with Russia last August. Other issues on the agenda of that meeting include Georgia's defense reforms and its priorities for 2009 -- including a review of Georgia's national security strategy.

De Hoop Scheffer notes that NATO foreign ministers plan to gather for a meeting in Brussels next month to help prepare for the agenda of April's NATO summit.

"I would not be surprised if the [NATO] foreign ministers' meeting in March would also pay attention to the NATO-Russia relationship, given the fact that ministers asked me at their meeting in December to be instrumental in a gradual re-engagement with the Russian Federation, which I also think is necessary," he said.

Russia's relations with NATO were damaged as a result of the Russia-Georgia war.

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EU Envoy Says Agreement Reached By Leaders Of Kosovo, Serbia Is Turning Point On Road To Normalization

EU envoys Josep Borrell (left) and Miroslav Lajcak arrive for meetings as part of the talks in Ohrid on March 18.

Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union's special representative for the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, believes that an agreement reached over the weekend between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti represents a turning point in the process of normalization of relations.

Both sides now must implement all articles of the agreement on the road to normalization of relations, Lajcak said on March 21 in a joint interview with RFE/RL and Euronews Serbia.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced on March 18 that the two sides had reached agreement on ways to implement the EU-backed deal.

Borrell made the announcement after talks with Vucic and Kurti in Ohrid, North Macedonia, noting that the implementing commitments from both sides are preconditions for their integration into the EU.

The agreement envisages that Belgrade will not recognize Kosovo under international law but will take note of its statehood and recognize Kosovo's passports and custom documents.

Kosovo is a former Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority. Even though Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its territory.

One of the sticking points has been the formation of the Community of Municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo.

Kosovo has an obligation to immediately start implementing the agreement related to the community, Lajcak said, while Article 4 of the agreement states that Serbia will not oppose Kosovo's membership in any international organization.

Lajcak called the agreement "an important milestone," but admitted in the interview that the EU had a more ambitious plan that included the signing of an agreement and a draft annex with clear timeframes and tasks.

"It is no secret here that we, as mediators, initially prepared a more detailed implementation annex with a sequence of steps and clear deadlines," Lajcak said.

But it was not possible for the leaders to agree on every point, and Vucic refused to sign the document, citing constitutional restrictions, he said.

"After several hours of negotiations, the parties managed to agree on 12 of the 18 points, but it was impossible to bridge the differences on the remaining six," he said. "We tried in many, many ways to bridge these differences, but it was clear that we were not going to succeed. And that's why we presented a new annex that was more general."

In the end, they agreed that the document would be formalized through Borrell's statement. This means that it is binding, official, and formal, "and all speculations about whether or not it is valid and binding are meaningless," Lajcak said.

Lajcak said there will soon be a meeting of the chief negotiators of Serbia and Kosovo in order to start work on the implementation of provisions of the agreement.

Lajcak also explained that the Joint Oversight Committee is the platform where matters related to implementation will be monitored and evaluated, and it will be established as agreed within 30 days. It's too early to discuss the composition of the committee, he said, but representatives of Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU will be part of it.

Mediators will report to EU member states once a month on progress and will continue to cooperate very closely with the United States, he said.

Lajcak expressed optimism about the future, saying the negotiations had been focused on a positive agenda for the last several months.

"I really believe that with this agreement, with the new platform and the things that need to be done in coordination with partners, we have to move forward, not backward," he said.

But he also stressed that neither side should take any unilateral action that could destabilize the atmosphere and the normalization process.

Updated

Nine Killed As Strong Earthquake Rattles Pakistan, Afghanistan

Residents gather outside their apartment buildings following a strong earthquake in Kabul on March 21.

A magnitude-6.5 earthquake rattled Pakistan and Afghanistan on March 21, sending panicked residents fleeing from homes and offices. At least nine people died. More than 100 people were brought to hospitals in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in a state of shock, Bilal Faizi, a spokesman for Pakistan's emergency services, told AP. Most were later discharged. Faizi and other officials said nine people were killed when roofs collapsed in various parts of northwestern Pakistan. The quake was centered in Afghanistan and was also felt in Tajikistan.

'I Have Never Felt That Much Hate,' Says Belarusian Tennis Player Sabalenka

Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka (file photo)

World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus says she has faced "hate" in the women's tennis tour locker room but hopes tensions with Ukrainian players will ease. Sabalenka lost to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the final at Indian Wells, California, on March 19. Asked on March 21 about her recent comments on "tensions" between Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus, she said, "It was really, really tough for me because I've never faced that much hate in the locker room."

U.S. Announces Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Network Used To Purchase Drone Parts

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the new sanctions on March 21. (file photo)

The United States has imposed new sanctions on Iranian firms and individuals accused of procuring equipment used to make drones.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) coordinated with the FBI to designate four entities and three people in Iran and Turkey for allegedly buying equipment to be used for Iran’s drone and weapons programs.

“Iran’s well-documented proliferation of [drones] and conventional weapons to its proxies continues to undermine both regional security and global stability,” Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a news release issued on March 21.

“The United States will continue to expose foreign procurement networks in any jurisdiction that supports Iran’s military industrial complex," he said.

Among those blacklisted in the new round of sanctions are the Iran-based Defense Technology and Science Research Center (DTSRC), its procurement firm Farazan Industrial Engineering, and two other firms along with the companies’ purchasing agents.

The Treasury Department said this procurement network operates on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which oversees several firms involved in drone and ballistic missile development.

U.S. defense officials say Iran is supplying Russia with drones, which have been used on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as the Kremlin presses its invasion.

The action follows OFAC’s designations on March 9 of a network based in China in connection with Iran’s drone procurement efforts, as well as several previous OFAC actions targeting Iran’s UAV manufacturers and their executives since September 2022.

The individuals named are Amanallah Paidar, who has served as a commercial manager and procurement agent for the DTSRC; Murat Bukey, a procurement agent who has supported Paidar and his DTSRC-related procurement; and Asghar Mahmoudi, who has facilitated the supply of items, including marine electronics, to Paidar and the DTSRC, according to the OFAC.

Bukey attempted to provide European-origin engines with drone and surface-to-air missile applications to Paidar and Farazan Industrial Engineering, OFAC said, adding that he separately sold more than 100 European-origin drone engines and related accessories worth more than $1 million to companies that likely shipped the items to Iran.

The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdiction by the three individuals and the entities. In addition, people in the United States who engage in transactions with those designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.

With reporting by AP

Protests In Western Iran Met With Force Despite New Year Holiday

People attend a protest on the Persian New Year holiday in western Iran on March 20.

Fresh anti-government protests in several Kurdish cities in western Iran, held as the country celebrates the Persian New Year holiday, have been met with violence from security forces.

Reports published on social media show that in the western cities of Iran, including Mahabad, Oshnavieh, Bukan, Piranshahr, Saqez, Sanandaj, and Dehgolan, people took to the streets on March 20 with several of the gatherings encountering attacks by government forces.

According to local sources, including the website of the Hengaw human rights group, people in the western Iranian city of Saqez gathered at the grave of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody last September -- an event that sparked months of protests across the country.

Those who gathered to protest chanted anti-government slogans, as well as "The martyr will never die."


Meanwhile, protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood and elsewhere in the capital chanted "Death to the dictator," a reference to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from windows and rooftops as the Persian New Year began.


Amini's death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests that authorities have met with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed -- without providing evidence -- the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people 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

Court In Italy Approves Decision To Extradite Son Of Russian Region's Governor To U.S.

Artyom Uss (file photo)

A court of appeals in the Italian city of Milan has approved a motion to extradite Artyom Uss, the son of the governor of Russia's Krasnoyarsk region, to the United States, where he may face up to 30 years in prison on charges of sanctions evasion and money laundering.

The La Repubblica newspaper reported on March 21 that the 41-year-old Uss had been placed under house arrest near Milan.

Uss was arrested in October at the request of the United States. Shortly after he was detained at Milan's Malpensa airport, a court in Moscow issued an arrest warrant for Uss, accusing him of money laundering. The move appeared aimed at heading off his extradition to the United States.

Uss asked to be handed over to the Russian authorities in January.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in October that another suspect in the case against Uss, Yury Orekhov, was arrested in Germany.

A 12-count indictment was unsealed on October 19 in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging the two men along with three other Russian nationals -- Svetlana Kuzurgasheva, Timofei Telegin, and Sergei Tulyakov.

In addition, two Venezuelan nationals -- Juan Fernando Serrano Ponce and Juan Carlos Soto -- were charged with brokering illicit oil deals for a Venezuelan energy company.

According to the statement, Uss and Orekhov owned Nord-Deutsche Industrieanlagenbau GmbH (NDA GmbH), which bought U.S. military technologies and dual-use technologies, including semiconductors and microchips that are used in military jets, missile systems, modern ammunition, radars, and satellites. Kuzurgasheva served as the company's executive director.

The items bought in the United States by the company in question were then passed on to Russian companies -- Radioavtomatika, Radioexport, and Abtronix -- owned by Telegin and Tulyakov.

The U.S. Attorney General's Office said the items were discovered in Russian military vehicles and in equipment captured by Ukrainian forces during Russia's ongoing full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

According to the indictment papers, Uss and Orekhov also used NDA GmbH to illegally smuggle hundreds of millions of tons of oil from Venezuela to companies in China and Russia, including one that might be linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is under U.S. and European Union sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Aleksandr Uss, Artyom's father, has served as the governor of Krasnoyarsk since 2018.

Ukrainian Refugees To Attend Euro 2024 Qualifier At Wembley

More than 5,000 Ukraine supporters are expected to be at the game in London on March 26. (file photo)

The Football Association has invited more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees and their host families to attend England's Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine at Wembley on March 26. There are around 117,000 Ukrainian refugees in the United Kingdom, many of them housed with people who volunteered to open up their homes to those fleeing the conflict. There are expected to be 4,200 Ukraine supporters among the sell-out crowd, in addition to those invited from the scheme.

Updated

Jailed Belarusian RFE/RL Journalist Losik May Be In Solitary Confinement

Belarusian journalist Ihar Losik (file photo)

Jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik may still be in solitary confinement, sources told RFE/RL's Belarus Service, following a rights-group report that he had been taken to hospital after cutting himself with a sharp instrument to protest against orders given to him by prison guards.

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center quoted sources on March 20 as saying Losik had been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck" while on a hunger strike in punitive solitary confinement.

Prison officials have not commented on the situation, and Losik's family and lawyer have said they are trying to get information on his status as they have not been able to communicate with him for weeks.

RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly reiterated his call for Losik's release.

“I am deeply disturbed by reports of Ihar’s medical condition and brutal treatment in detention. I am heartbroken for his parents, who cannot even visit their son,” Fly said in a statement. “Ihar has already endured 1,000 days away from his young daughter, and should be released immediately.”

Sources close to penitentiary services told RFE/RL on March 21 that Losik cut his hand and neck to protest an order to clean his barracks. According to the sources, the incident took place on March 15 and since the wounds were not serious, Losik may still be in solitary confinement at correctional camp No. 1 in the city of Navapolatsk in the country's northeast.

RFE/RL journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich, who has served time in Belarusian correctional facilities, told RFE/RL that, in general, inmates clean their premises and the places they live themselves.

But in situations when guards order a cleaning of the premises, especially restrooms, inmates sometimes choose to disobey such orders, or even inflict bodily harm on themselves, to protest against carrying out the task.

"To follow such an order automatically places an inmate among prisoners who have a so-called 'lower status'," Hruzdzilovich said.

Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on a number of indictments, including "organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred," and several other charges that remain unclear.

He has maintained his innocence and says all the charges against him are politically motivated.

In January, Losik's wife, Darya Losik, was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

On March 21, the Belarusian Supreme Court rejected her appeal against the sentence.

The couple's 4-year-old daughter, Paulina, is currently in the custody of Darya Losik's parents.

The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Ihar and Darya Losik.

Seven Out Of 30 Allies Met NATO Military Spending Target In 2022, Says Stoltenberg

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

Seven out of 30 allies met NATO's military spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022, one country less than in 2021 before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the alliance's chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said on March 21, urging allies to boost defense investment more quickly. Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that the alliance originally had expected two more countries to meet the goal. "But because GDP has increased more than expected for a couple of allies, two allies that we expected to be at 2 percent are now slightly below 2 percent," he said.

U.S. Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery To Ukraine War Zone

U.S. officials said the decision was made to send the older M1A1 version of the Abrams tank to Ukraine as they will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain. (file photo)

The Pentagon is speeding up its delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine, opting to send a refurbished older model that can be ready faster, with the aim of getting the 70-ton battle powerhouses to the war zone in eight to 10 months, U.S. officials told the Associated Press. The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or two to build and ship. But officials said the decision was made to send the older M1A1 version, which can be taken from U.S. Army stocks and will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain as they fight Russia's invasion. The officials spoke on March 21 on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been publicly announced. To read the original report by AP, click here.

Moscow Resident Gets Jail Time For Ukrainian Symbol On His Phone

The Azov Regiment, once a far-right group and now one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting against Russia in eastern Ukraine, was labeled as a "terrorist" organization in Russia in August 2022. (file photo)

A Moscow court said on March 21 it has sentenced local resident Yury Samoilov to 14 days in jail for having an image of the shoulder sleeve insignia of Ukraine's Azov Regiment as a screensaver on his smartphone. Samoilov was found guilty of distributing extremist materials. The Azov Regiment, once a far-right group and now one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting against Russia in eastern Ukraine, was labeled as a "terrorist" organization in Russia in August 2022. Samoilov was charged after a fellow passenger on a subway train reported him to police. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Rights Groups Call On Belarus To Halt Extradition Of Tajik Opposition Activist

Nizomiddin Nasriddinov was detained at Dushanbe's request while entering Belarus from Lithuania in January. Nasriddinov is wanted in Tajikistan on the charge of calling for extremist actions which the right groups call ungrounded.

Human Rights Watch and several other groups have urged Belarus on March 21 not to extradite Tajik opposition activist Nizomiddin Nasriddinov, saying he "would be at serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture on the basis of his political beliefs." Nasriddinov was detained at Dushanbe's request while entering Belarus from Lithuania in January. Nasriddinov is wanted in Tajikistan on the charge of calling for extremist actions which the right groups call ungrounded. Nasriddinov has refugee status in Germany. Dozens of opposition figures, journalists, and rights activists have been handed lengthy prison terms in Tajikistan in recent years. To read a joint statement from the rights groups, click here.

Belarusian Supreme Court Rejects Darya Losik's Appeal Against Her Two-Year Prison Term

A court sentenced Darya Losik after finding her guilty of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. (file photo)

The Supreme Court of Belarus has rejected an appeal filed by Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, against a two-year prison term she was handed in January for giving an interview to an independent media outlet.

The court took little time in handing down its ruling announcing it shortly after the start of the hearing on March 21. No details of the ruling were immediately available.

A court in the western city of Brest sentenced Losik after finding her guilty of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

Losik's husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on several charges, including organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred, and several other charges that remain unclear.

He has maintained his innocence and calls all charges against him politically motivated.

On March 20, the Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group said Ihar Losik had been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck," while being kept in a punitive solitary confinement.

Vyasna described the incident as an "attempted suicide," though it was not clear how Losik was injured, to what extent, or when the incident occurred.

The Supreme Court of Belarus on March 21 also rejected an appeal filed by military expert Yahor Lyabyadok against a five-year prison term he was handed in late December for giving an interview to an unspecified independent media outlet.

The cases highlight the harsh crackdown by the regime of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka against any dissent since an August 2020 presidential election, which he claims he won, while opposition politicians and activists say the vote was rigged.

The 68-year-old, who has been in power since 1994, has directed a campaign to arrest tens of thousands of people.

He has refused to negotiate with the opposition, and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.

Russian Foreign Ministry Summons Canadian Diplomat Over FM Melanie Joly's Comments

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, shown meeting with Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on February 14, said Canada's goal is "definitely" to "weaken Russia's ability to launch very difficult attacks against Ukraine."

Russia's Foreign Ministry on March 21 summoned Minister Counsellor Brian Ebel of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow over Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly's recent statements regarding her country's efforts against Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The ministry called Joly's opinions "another Russophobic move...that will have the most serious repercussions for the bilateral relations." On March 10, Joly said Canada's goal is "definitely" to "weaken Russia's ability to launch very difficult attacks against Ukraine," calling to ensure that President Vladimir Putin and his associates are "held to account" for the full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

UNICEF Warns That Millions In Pakistan Still Lack Safe Water Following Floods

A man swims in floodwaters while heading for higher ground during the monsoon season in Charsadda, Pakistan, on August 27, 2022.

The United Nations children's agency UNICEF says that six months after catastrophic floods struck Pakistan, more than 10 million people, including children, living in flood-affected areas still have no access to safe drinking water.

UNICEF said in a statement on March 21 that the lack of clean water is forcing many families with no alternative but to drink and use "potentially disease-ridden water."

The prolonged lack of access to safe drinking water and sewage systems, along with the continued proximity of vulnerable families to bodies of stagnant water, are contributing to the widespread outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dengue, and malaria, UNICEF said, adding that unsafe water and poor sanitation are key underlying causes of malnutrition.

"Safe drinking water is not a privilege, it is a basic human right," said UNICEF's representative in Pakistan, Abdullah Fadil.

“Yet, every day, millions of girls and boys in Pakistan are fighting a losing battle against preventable waterborne diseases and the consequential malnutrition."

Last summer unprecedented monsoon rains and the flooding they sparked caused more than 1,500 deaths across Pakistan, including more than 550 children.

Many roads and bridges were washed away or are badly damaged by the disaster, leaving thousands of families with little access to food, safe water, and medicines.

In January donors pledged more than $9 billion to help Pakistan recover and rebuild following the devastating floods, which environmentalists and scientists blamed on climate change.

But the funds have been slow to come, with UNICEF saying in its statement that its current appeal of $173.5 million to provide life-saving support to women and children affected by the floods remains less than 50 percent funded.

"It is imperative that the voices and the needs of children in Pakistan are prioritized at all costs and that children are placed at the heart of all post-flood recovery and resilience plans," said Fadil.

Hungary Obstructs EU Statement On Putin's International Warrant

Hungary's move forced EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a personal statement instead, "taking note" of the ICC move.

Hungary has used its veto power to block a joint statement by European Union member states on the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg reported on March 21, quoting sources familiar with the matter. Hungary's move forced EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a personal statement instead, "taking note" of the ICC move. Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mate Paczolay denied the report, telling Bloomberg, "It's a lie that Hungary vetoed an EU statement on the ICC case." To read the original report by Bloomberg, click here.

Anti-Kremlin Movement Claims Role In Deadly Fire At Russian FSB Compound

Smoke from fire caused by an explosion rises above a building belonging to the border patrol section of Russia's FSB federal security service in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on March 16.

A Russian partisan group called Chyorny Most (Black Bridge) has claimed responsibility for a fire in the compound of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don near the Ukrainian border that killed at least four people and injured five others on March 16. The group said on Telegram on March 21 that it was "a co-author" of the incident by contributing to its preparations and implementation. It did not name any others involved. Black Bridge positions itself as a guerrilla movement fighting against President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

HRW Urges Pakistan To Drop Terrorism Charges Against Opposition Supporters

Police detain supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad on March 18.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says authorities in Pakistan have committed abuses while confronting supporters of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan during recent protests. Dozens of members of Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf party, including Khan, have been charged with terrorism offenses, criminal intimidation, and rioting. "The use of Pakistan’s vague and overbroad anti-terrorism provisions against opposition protesters is very worrying," said HRW's Patricia Gossman in a statement on March 21. "It is vitally important for the police to respect the right to peaceful assembly while holding those responsible for unlawful violence to account."

Updated

Head Of Disbanded Nobel Winner Memorial In Moscow Faces Possible Charges After Allegedly Discrediting Armed Forces

The former offices of the Memorial human rights center in Moscow. Russian authorities ordered the closure of Memorial in December 2021 under the controversial "foreign agent" law amid a continued crackdown on civil society.

MOSCOW -- An investigation has been opened into the head of the disbanded Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, Oleg Orlov, over the alleged discrediting of Russian forces involved in the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the group said on March 21.

According to Memorial, Orlov was detained for questioning after police searched his home. Following the questioning, Orlov was released but ordered not to leave Moscow.

It remains unclear whether charges will be filed against Orlov.

Earlier in the day, police searched the homes of more than 10 Memorial employees in another criminal case. Police said that those searches were linked to a case on the "rehabilitation of Nazism" launched on March 3.

According to police, that case was opened after the organization Veterans of Russia accused Memorial of including about 20 people on the list of the victims of Josef Stalin's repressions who -- according to the organization -- were prosecuted by the Soviet regime for collaborating with occupying Nazi forces in the 1940s.

After the searches, the Memorial employees were also detained for questioning as witnesses in the case.

Afterward they said that a leading member of Memorial, 64-year-old Yan Rachinsky, was held in a police car for several hours before the questioning.

The Memorial Human Rights Center was shut down by a Moscow court decision in late December 2021 at the request of city prosecutors who accused one of the country's most-respected human rights organizations of violating the law on "foreign agents."

In a parallel case at the time, the Supreme Court ruled that Memorial International, a standalone group and the umbrella organization for many regional branches, and the Memorial Human Rights Center, should be disbanded on the same charge.

Memorial and its supporters have called the move by the Russian authorities politically motivated.

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year together with jailed Belarusian dissident Ales Byalyatski and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties.

NOTE: This article has been amended to clarify that Oleg Orlov may face criminal charges, but is currently only under investigation.

Local Pakistani Official Among 11 People Killed In Attack On Car

Eleven people were killed on March 20 in an armed attack on a vehicle in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The dead included Atif Munsif Jadoon, chairman of the Havelian area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Tariq Mazhar, a police official in Havelian, told RFE/RL that it is not known who carried out the attack. Another police official said the attack may have been caused by enmity within the Jadoon family. Pakistani media say four of the dead were bodyguards for the family, which has not commented on the attack. Jadoon was independently elected in last year's elections but later joined the Tehrik-e Insaf party. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, click here.

U.S. Says China, Russia Blocking UN Action On North Korea

An image released by North Korea's Central News Agency on March 20 shows a missile being fired by the North Korean military at an undisclosed location.

The United States has accused China and Russia of shielding North Korea from any action by the UN Security Council for its unprecedented spate of intercontinental ballistic missile launches, which violate multiple UN resolutions and jeopardize international aviation and maritime safety. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on March 20 told a council meeting that Chinese and Russian "obstructionism" was encouraging North Korea "to launch ballistic missiles with impunity" and advance its development of more sophisticated and dangerous weapons. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Updated

Japanese Prime Minister Visits Kyiv As Intense Fighting Continues In Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) greets Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Kyiv on March 21.

Russia's sustained offensive in the eastern Donetsk region has intensified, the Ukrainian military said on March 21, as Japan's prime minister met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv in a show of support that coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow.

The commander of Ukraine's ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskiy, said Russian assault groups have been attempting to advance toward the center of Bakhmut, the Donetsk region city that has been the focal point of a months-long raging battle that has prompted heavy losses to both sides.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"Attempts by enemy assault units are trying to advance from the outskirts to the center of [Bakhmut], but the Defense Forces are working to destroy them 24/7," Syrskiy wrote on Telegram.

Russian and Ukrainian forces have invested heavily in the battle for Bakhmut, even though analysts say the city -- which has been reduced to little more than rubble -- carried little strategic value.

Ukrainian defenders repelled 120 attacks focused primarily on Bakhmut, the General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said earlier in its daily report, adding that Russians also attempted advances in the directions of Avdiyivka, Lyman, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry said earlier that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would visit Kyiv for talks with Zelenskiy, with Japanese television showing the prime minister boarding a train at the Polish border town of Przemysl. His trip was kept secret until the last minute for security reasons.

Zelenskiy posted footage of him greeting Kishida, calling him "a truly powerful defender of the international order and a longtime friend of Ukraine."

Earlier, Kishida toured Bucha, a town outside Kyiv where the mayor has said 400 civilians were killed last year by Russian forces. Kishida laid a wreath outside a church before observing a moment of silence and bowing.

"The world was astonished to see innocent civilians in Bucha killed one year ago. I really feel great anger at the atrocity upon visiting that very place here," Kishida said, adding his condolences to all the victims. Japan will keep aiding Ukraine "with the greatest effort to regain peace," he said.

WATCH: A special RFE/RL investigation looks into allegations of Russian sabotage, cover-ups by Bulgarian authorities, and whether Bulgarian arms depots are still at risk as Russia's war in Ukraine enters a second year.

Bulgarian Blasts And Russia's War In Ukraine
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Kishida's meeting with Zelenskiy came as Japan prepares to host a Group of Seven (G7) summit in May that the Japanese leader has said should exude a strong signal that international order and the rule of law must be upheld in opposition to Russia's unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow launched in February of 2022.

Zelenskiy said he would join the G7 summit online following an invitation from Kishida.

Kishida's visit to Ukraine coincided with Xi's visit to Moscow to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has become increasingly isolated on the international stage because of the invasion.

IN PHOTOS: Ukraine continues to hold on to eastern city of Bakhmut despite the Wagner mercenary group claiming to have seized up to 70 percent of the ruined city.

As Kishida was beginning his visit, Russia's Defense Ministry said on March 21 that two of its strategic bombers flew over the Sea of Japan for more than seven hours.

The Tupolev Tu-95MS planes are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and Moscow regularly flies them over international waters in the Arctic, North Atlantic and Pacific as a show of strength.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
Updated

Agreements Signed By Putin, Xi Bring Partnership Into 'New Era'

Chinese Leader Xi Holds Second Day Of Talks In Moscow
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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have signed a series of documents on "strategic cooperation" between Beijing and Moscow after what Putin described as "successful and constructive" talks at the Kremlin.

Xi said one of the agreements he signed with Putin brings ties into a "new era" of cooperation.

"We signed a statement on deepening the strategic partnership and bilateral ties, which are entering a new era," Xi said following talks with Putin on March 21 intended to cement the "no limits" partnership the two leaders announced just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Russian state television broadcast the signing ceremony held in the Kremlin on the second day of a three-day visit by Xi to the Russian capital.

Xi paid tribute to the "constructive talks" he held with Putin, referring to an expansion of trade and economic cooperation with Russia, including the export of more Chinese electronic goods.

Putin said that additional gas deliveries to China had been agreed, and that the two countries planned to expand their transport links by building roads and bridges.

A joint statement said the burgeoning partnership between the two countries had reached its highest level ever, but the statement said it was not directed against any other country and did not constitute a "military-political alliance."

Relations between Russia and China "do not constitute a bloc, do not have a confrontational nature and are not directed against third countries," the joint statement said.

On the war in Ukraine, Xi said Beijing backs a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

"We are guided by the principles of the United Nations...and promote a peaceful settlement" of fighting in Ukraine, Xi said. "We are always for peace and dialogue," he added, reiterating China's "neutral position" on Ukraine.

Western countries have dismissed China's proposal -- a 12-point paper calling for a de-escalation and eventual cease-fire in Ukraine -- because it echoes Russian talking points.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv had invited China to sign on to Ukraine's own proposed peace plan but had received no reply.

Zelenskiy has repeatedly requested a phone call with Xi, but nothing has been arranged, according to Ukrainian officials.

Putin said that China’s proposals could be used as the basis of a peace settlement in Ukraine but said Western countries backing Kyiv were not yet ready.

"We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv. However, so far we see no such readiness from their side," Putin said.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby dismissed Xi's mediation efforts, saying China does not have an impartial position on the war. Kirby also told reporters at the White House that nothing that came out of the Xi-Putin meeting indicated the war would end soon.

Kirby said it was clear to see during the meeting that Putin hopes to obtain lethal weapons from China.

"You can see in what Mr. Putin is doing...that he's having resource difficulties" and is trying to overcome them, Kirby said.

Kirby added that one reason the United States opposes a cease-fire at this time is because it would give Putin time to make up for the resource shortfall.

There is no evidence China has agreed to provide lethal weapons to Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier on March 21 in Brussels. Western countries have warned China that it risks punishing economic sanctions if it sends lethal weapons to Russia.

Zelenskiy Notes Expanding Support For Creation Of Tribunal On Russian Aggression

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers his nightly address on March 20.

The number of countries that support the creation of a UN-backed special tribunal to hold Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine is increasing, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on March 20.

Zelenskiy said in his evening address that he held conversations earlier in the day with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to thank them for joining an international group that is preparing the creation of the special tribunal.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"The circle of partners who are ready to work together to punish Russia for aggression is inevitably expanding. And it makes the prospect of punishment more and more realistic," Zelenskiy said.

He said he also spoke about the special tribunal on March 20 in an address to a conference of European justice ministers in London.

"I appealed to the participants of the conference and called on them to support all elements of the international effort so that the aggressor would be accurately punished," he said.

The European Parliament in January adopted a recommendatory resolution on the creation of a special tribunal regarding the crime of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted unanimously one week later to establish the tribunal.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), however, has said he opposes the EU proposal. Karim Khan said in December that his court is capable of effectively considering war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.

The ICC on March 17 issued a warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing the Russian leader of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. The court also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, a Russian children's rights official who allegedly directs the removal of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Kremlin dismissed the warrant, arguing that it is void because Russia is not in the ICC's jurisdiction. Ukraine is also not a member of the ICC.

Millions In Extra Funding Pledged For ICC Work In Ukraine

British Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the countries "share the belief that President Putin and the wider leadership must be held to account." (file photo)

An international conference in London has raised 4 million pounds ($4.9 million) to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Justice ministers from over 40 countries met in London on March 20 after the court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him in the abduction of children from Ukraine. British Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the countries "share the belief that President Putin and the wider leadership must be held to account," adding, "Let's make sure that we back up our words with deeds." To read the original story by AP, click here.

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