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Iraq Vote Count Shows Maliki, Allawi Neck And Neck

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (left) and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi are running close to even with 80 percent of the vote counted.
(RFE/RL) -- With nearly 80 percent of the votes counted from Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections, the main winners appear to be Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and challenger Iyad Allawi.

But the two front-runners are neck and neck. The vote count so far shows Allawi's Al-Iraqiyah coalition narrowly ahead of Maliki's State of Law alliance by less than 9,000 votes.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shi'ite religious groups, looks set to come in third, followed by the Kurdistan Alliance, composed of the two main factions in the autonomous Kurdish region.

With 20 percent of the vote remaining to be counted, the balance between the two front-runners still could easily tip either way.

Coalition Talk

But what appears almost certain is that neither will be able to amass enough seats in parliament to rule alone.

Already in Baghdad the talk is all about coalition building, and which party will partner with others.

One senior candidate with the Al-Iraqiyah list, Intisar Allawi, a relative of Allawi, said on March 16 that the group held "very good and positive talks" with the Iraqi National Alliance and with the Kurdistan Alliance.

At the same time, Prime Minister Maliki has invited all parties in Iraq to join negotiations with his State of Law alliance.

With tensions high, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is cautioning that final vote tallies won't be known for some time yet.

"We need another few days to announce the final results of the elections. We will hold a news conference to announce the results, following a meeting of IHEC's board of commissioners to ratify the final results," an IHEC official said on March 16.

Complicating the announcement of final results are the charges of vote fraud lodged by many parties, including both front-runners. However, UN officials advising the IHEC have said they see no evidence of vote fraud widespread enough to undermine the outcome.

Redrawing Political Map

It is already clear that the balance of power in the new Iraqi parliament will be very different from what it is today.

The parliament has been dominated over the past four years by an alliance of Shi'ite religious parties. Those parties swept the first Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2005, when Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the polls.

Now, the Sunnis have come back to the ballot box, helping propel Allawi's secular bloc to prominence. By contrast, the Shi'ite religious parties have lost ground to both Allawi and Maliki, who also ran on a secular and nationalist message.

The only group among the previously dominant Shi'ite religious parties that appears to have gained ground with this month's election is that of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr has always been a maverick in Iraqi politics -- at times a violent one. His group demands an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal and fought U.S. forces in 2004. It also was blamed for some of the country's worst sectarian violence before it was suppressed by the Iraqi military in 2008.

In the north, the partial vote tally for the flashpoint province of Kirkuk shows little sign tensions there will be eased by the election results.

Allawi's nationalist list holds only a slim lead there over its main challenger, the Kurdistan Alliance. The oil-rich province is claimed by three different Iraqi ethnic groups: Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans.

U.S. Withdrawal 'On Schedule'

U.S. officials are counting on the latest parliamentary elections to help smooth the way for Washington's planned troop withdrawal.

The United States hopes by the end of August to halve the number of its troops in Iraq to 50,000. Those remaining are to engage only in noncombat operations, such as training.

U.S. commanders have called the largely peaceful voting on March 7 a sign the country could be on the road to stability.

U.S. General David Petraeus told a U.S. Senate panel on March 16 he planned to stick to the withdrawal timetable, which envisages removing all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.

But he also noted that the situation in Iraq remained fragile. He said the U.S. military was still reviewing its plans for how best to manage its drawdown.

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Leader Of White Supremacist Group Wanted In U.S. Arrested In Romania

Robert Rundo (in blue) fights a cage match against a Ukrainian Azov member in Kyiv in 2018.

The leader of a U.S. neo-Nazi group wanted in the United States for allegedly fomenting violence at political rallies has been apprehended by Romanian authorities in Bucharest.

Robert Paul Rundo, 33, was taken into custody in the Romanian capital with the help of a police special-forces unit after he was spotted at a gym on March 29.

He had a document identifying himself as Robert Lazar Pavic, according to judicial sources. It is not clear when he entered Romania.

The U.S citizen is currently being held by the General Directorate of Police in Bucharest. U.S. authorities have sent a request for his extradition on charges that he conspired to attend political rallies and use combat tactics and physical violence against people and groups that did not support their ideology.

Rundo allegedly assaulted several people, including a police officer, at two rallies in the United States. The charges are in connection with activity that took place between December 2016 and October 2018.

The Bucharest Court of Appeals opened an extradition procedure on behalf of Rundo, and April 25 was set for the next hearing in the case.

Rundo is suspected of promoting white-supremacist ideology for the past three years in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

"The suspect is said to be one of the founders of an organization that supports the ideology of white supremacy, which has publicly presented itself as a group ready to fight, campaigning for a new nationalist movement of white supremacy and identity," a Romanian police statement said.

The Rise Above Movement (RAM) is based in southern California and members believe they are fighting a modern world corrupted by the "destructive cultural influences" of liberals, Jews, Muslims, and nonwhite immigrants.

They describe themselves as a "premier alt-right MMA (mixed martial arts) club." RAM members participated in the so-called Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that led to the death of a counterprotester.

Rundo was detained the following year in connection with events that took place in California but was released after the charges were dismissed, and he left the United States for Europe.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Rundo tried to create a group dedicated to white supremacy in Eastern Europe. The open-source investigative group Bellingcat revealed in 2020 that Rundo was in Serbia and had posted videos of himself and others on Telegram in which they are seen writing white-supremacist messages on walls in Belgrade.

In February 2020, Rundo published an article on a nationalist website in which he wrote that he participated in a march organized by Serbian extremists in front of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

Bellingcat reported that Rundo also participated in a neo-Nazi commemoration that took place in Budapest in February 2020 and was attended by 600 neo-Nazis from Europe. They gathered in the Hungarian capital for what they call Honor Day, commemorating an escape attempt by besieged Nazi forces in 1945.

Two weeks later, Rundo was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a neo-Nazi march that was banned by local authorities.

In an interview on a neo-Nazi podcast in September 2020, Rundo used anti-Semitic language, referenced to Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, and claimed he left the United States because of nonstop harassment by U.S. authorities.

Lukashenka Defends Placement Of Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons In Belarus

Alyaksandr Lukashenka addresses the nation on March 31.

The authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has defended a Russian plan to place tactical nuclear weapons -- including intercontinental ballistic missiles if necessary -- on Belarusian territory, saying the country is coming under increased threats from the West.

Commenting on the issue for the first time since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the move on March 25, Lukashenka said in his annual address to the nation on March 31 that he had initiated the plan by asking Moscow to move tactical nuclear weapons to his country to ensure it is capable "of defending the sovereignty and independence of Belarus."

Lukashenka, a pariah in Europe and most of the Western world after launching a brutal crackdown against opponents following an August 2020 presidential he claimed to win but they say was rigged, offered no evidence of any specific threats from the West, which has called the possible deployment "irresponsible."

"I would like to add that all of the infrastructure [for tactical nuclear weapons] is ready.... Those are weapons that will contribute to our sovereignty and independence," Lukashenka said, adding that Minsk could exercise control over all nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.

That appears to contradict Putin, who said during the announcement last week that the tactical missiles would remain under Moscow's control. Military experts have said the deployment will lead to the creation of a permanent Russian military base in Belarus.

"Putin and I will decide and bring strategic weapons here, which those scoundrels abroad must comprehend, those who are trying to blow us up from inside and outside today. Nothing will prevent us from protecting our countries," Lukashenka added.

Belarus is the closest thing Putin's Russia has to an ally, and their ties have tightened further since Lukashenka -- in power since 1994 -- claimed victory in a 2020 election widely seen as rigged and then cracked down violently against massive peaceful protests over the vote.

Minsk has not sent troops to fight alongside Moscow's forces in Ukraine, but Lukashenka allowed Russia to use the country -- which borders Ukraine on the north --- as a staging area for the invasion.

It has also granted Russia full access to its air bases, carried out joint drills, and treated wounded Russian soldiers on its territory.

The deployment announcement comes amid soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022. Waves of economic and diplomatic sanctions have been aimed at Russia, as well as Belarus, for its logistical support for the attack on Ukraine.

Those came on top of sanctions already slapped on Minsk for its crackdown on civil society and dissent following the disputed election.

Addressing Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenka called for immediate truce talks "without preconditions"

"It is crucial to stop [the war] now, before an escalation of the situation. Declare a truce with a ban on supplies of forces, weapons and equipment," Lukashenka said, stressing a truce cannot be used to bring more weapons to the conflict, as Russia could be forced to use "the most terrible weapon" if it felt threatened.

Given Belarus's role in the conflict and its close ties with Russia, Ukraine has previously rejected offers from Minsk to broker peace.

Belarus has said it has no plans to enter the war.

Kazakh Tycoon Related To Former President's Family Handed Eight-Year Prison Term

Qairat Boranbaevappears in court to hear the verdict in his case in Astana on March 31.

ASTANA -- Kazakh tycoon Qairat Boranbaev, whose daughter is the widow of the grandson of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has been sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges.

A court in Astana's Saryarqa district sentenced Boranbaev and his two co-defendants on March 31 after finding them guilty of illegally obtaining property and embezzlement. The court also stripped Boranbaev of all state awards and ordered the confiscation of all his property and financial assets.

Boranbaev's co-defendants, businessmen Roman Nakhanov and Taiyr Zhanuzaq, were also each sentenced to eight years in prison. The trio had pleaded not guilty.

Boranbaev's daughter, Alima Boranbaeva, and Nazarbaev's grandson, Aisultan Nazarbaev, married in 2013. In September 2020, Aisultan Nazarbaev, who reportedly suffered from drug addiction and had run-ins with the law in the United Kingdom, died in London at the age of 29.

Boranbaev, 56, was arrested after unprecedented anti-government protests in early January 2022 after which the Kazakh regime began to quietly target Nazarbaev, his family, and other allies -- many of whom held powerful or influential posts in government, security agencies, and profitable energy companies.

In September, another court in Astana sentenced Nazarbaev's nephew Qairat Satybaldy to six years in prison on corruption charges.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has taken a series of moves since the unrests to push Nazarbaev, who ruled the tightly controlled former Soviet republic with an iron fist for almost three decades, further into the background following his resignation in 2019.

Though he officially stepped down as president, Nazarbaev retained sweeping powers as the head of the country's powerful Security Council. He also enjoyed substantial powers by holding the title of "elbasy" -- the leader of the nation.

Even after Nazarbaev's resignation, many Kazakhs remained bitter over the oppression of his reign.

Those feelings came to a head in January 2022 when unprecedented, nationwide anti-government protests were sparked by a fuel-price hike.

The demonstrations unexpectedly exploded into deadly countrywide unrest over perceived corruption under the Nazarbaev regime and the cronyism that allowed his family and close friends to enrich themselves while ordinary citizens failed to share in the oil-rich country's wealth.

Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of his Security Council role, taking it over himself. Since then, several of Nazarbaev’s relatives and allies have been pushed out of their positions or resigned.

Last month, Toqaev sign a law that canceled Nazarbaev's elbasy title.

Kazakh critics say Toqaev's initiatives were cosmetic and did not change the nature of the autocratic system in a country that has been plagued for years by rampant corruption and nepotism.

EU May Need To Reintroduce Tariffs On Ukrainian Grain, PMs Say

Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain exporters, had its Black Sea ports blocked following Russia's February 2022 invasion and found alternative shipping routes through EU states Poland and Romania.

Tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural imports may need to be reintroduced if an influx of products that is pushing down prices in EU markets cannot be stopped by other means, several prime ministers of eastern states said. In a letter to the European Commission, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia said the scale of the increase of products including grains, oilseeds, eggs, poultry, and sugar had been "unprecedented." Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain exporters, had its Black Sea ports blocked following Russia's February 2022 invasion and found alternative shipping routes through EU states Poland and Romania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iran's IRGC Says Israeli Air Strike In Syria Kills One Of Its Officers

Milad Haydari was killed in Syria, the IRGC said.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) says an Israeli attack in Syria on March 31 killed one of its officers in a sign of Israel's increasing efforts to counter Tehran's foothold in the country. The IRGC "has announced the martyrdom of guardsman Milad Haydari, one of the IRGC's military advisers and officers," in the attack, a statement said. This was the second attack attributed to Israel in Syria in less than two days. There was no immediate comment from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Spanish PM Says He Encouraged China's Xi To Speak With Zelenskiy

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks to Chinese President Xi Jinping as they attend an official welcome ceremony in Moscow on March 21.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 31 to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn firsthand about Kyiv's peace formula to help bring an end to Russia's invasion. Sanchez told a news conference in Beijing he had informed Xi, who visited Moscow on March 20-21, that Spain supported the proposals made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. They include a demand to restore Ukraine's territory to the status quo before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Wimbledon To Accept Russian, Belarusian Players As 'Neutral' Athletes

Wimbledon said last year that barring players from the two countries was its only viable option under the guidance provided by the British government.

Wimbledon will allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete at the grasscourt Grand Slam as "neutral" athletes this year under certain conditions, having banned players from the two countries last year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Wimbledon said last year that barring players from the two countries was its only viable option under the guidance provided by the British government. However, this year's conditions include prohibiting "expressions of support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine" and prohibiting entry by players "receiving funding from the Russian and/or Belarusian states." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Police In North Kazakhstan Investigate Group Calling For 'Sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic'

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev poses with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Astana on October 14, 2022.

Police in the North Kazakhstan region say they are investigating a group in the regional capital, Petropavl, called the People's Council. The group announced its creation days earlier saying it promotes "our independence and sovereignty" and "the unbreakable territorial integrity of the sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic" -- Kazakhstan's former name when it was part of the Soviet Union. After Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Kazakh officials launched several probes linked to online expressions of support for Russia and the idea of reviving the Soviet Union by Kazakh citizens. To read the original story of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Former Putin Speechwriter Gallyamov Accused Of Discrediting Russian Armed Forces

Abbas Gallyamov worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008 to 2010. He was a deputy chief of the administration of then-President of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov from 2010 to 2014.

A self-exiled former speechwriter of Vladimir Putin, Abbas Gallyamov, whose name appeared in the Russian Interior Ministry's online registry of wanted persons last week, is suspected of discrediting Russia's armed forces, a charge Russian authorities have been using to stifle any criticism of Moscow's war in Ukraine.

The Setevyye Svobody (Network Freedoms) group, which monitors the rights of online journalists, said on March 30 that it had obtained official documents of the probe against Gallyamov stating that the charge against him stems from his interview with Ukraine's 1+1 television's YouTube project.

Gallyamov gave the interview with the outlet on April 9, 2022, discussing alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Kramatorsk.

Setevyye Svobody said the investigation against Gallyamov was launched on January 18 and that his name was added to the wanted list on February 17, more than one month before it appeared on the ministry's website.

If convicted, Gallyamov faces up to 10 years in prison. According to Setevyye Svobody, lawyer Alan Gamazov is representing Gallyamov. It is not clear whether he was appointed by Russian authorities or was chosen by Gallyamov to be his legal representative.

On March 24, the Mediazona website said it found the official notice identifying Gallyamov as wanted on unspecified charges on the Interior Ministry's website. The notice was posted a day after RFE/RL published an extensive interview with Gallyamov.

In the interview, Gallyamov suggested that the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may lead to a revolution in Russia.

He also reflected on his time as a member of Putin's speechwriting team after Putin became prime minister in 2008. He said that at that time, nobody could have predicted "that Russia would turn into some kind of fascist state, as it is now."

Discrediting Russia's armed forces became a crime under a new law adopted after Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Last month, the Russian Justice Ministry added Gallyamov to its registry of foreign agents, saying he has distributed "materials compiled by foreign agents, expressed ideas against the special military operation in Ukraine, participated as an expert, and respondent on information platforms presented by foreign entities."

Gallyamov, 50, is currently residing in Israel. He worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008 to 2010. He was a deputy chief of the administration of then-President of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov from 2010 to 2014.

Updated

Ukraine Marks Bucha Massacre Anniversary As Russia Shells Cities In East

Graves of unidentified people killed by Russian soldiers during the occupation of the Bucha, outside Kyiv, are seen at the town's cemetery on March 30 ahead of the one-year anniversary of when Russian forces withdrew.

Ukraine on March 31 marked one year since Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, leaving behind hundreds of bodies of murdered civilians on the streets of the commuter town near the capital in what Kyiv said was a massacre and a Russian war crime.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy presided over an official outdoors ceremony in Bucha that was also attended by Moldovan President Maia Sandu and the prime ministers of EU and NATO members Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- Eduard Geger, Robert Golob, and Andrej Plenkovich.

In a video posted on social media, Zelenskiy called the Bucha massacre "a symbol of the atrocities" committed by the Russian military.

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.

"We will never forgive. We will punish all those guilty," Zelenskiy said in a statement accompanying the video.

As the Russian military was forced to hastily leave Bucha and Irpin, another town on the outskirts of Kyiv, after a failed attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital, images of the dead bodies scattered on the streets of Bucha sparked a wave of shock and condemnation around the world.

Russia has denied committing the massacres and claimed the deaths were "staged" by Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials estimate about 400 bodies of civilians were found in Bucha, as well as more than 1,000 throughout the region around Kyiv.

Many of the bodies were buried in mass graves.

Ukrainian and international investigators have opened a probe into war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, and other locations in Ukraine where apparent massacres occurred.

"Today the people of Moldova and I stand with the global community in remembering the terror inflicted on the civilians in Bucha one year ago," Sandu wrote on Twitter from Bucha, together with a photo from the ceremony.

"We honor and grieve the innocent. Democracies must work together to ensure that these atrocities are investigated and punished," she added.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc "assists Ukraine to investigate such crimes and collect evidence," while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said Bucha showed the world "the true face of Russian occuption."

"A year ago, Ukraine liberated Bucha and the world woke up to the true face of Russian occupation. Bucha is a crime scene and a symbol for all Russian crimes -- mass killings, deportations, erasing whole cities," Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wrote in a Twitter on March 31. "There's no going back -- Russia will be held accountable."

IN PHOTOS: The photo of a dead woman's hand, her freshly varnished nails standing out against the mud on her skin, became an iconic image of Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Months after the picture was taken, her family and friends are struggling to cope with her loss.

Meanwhile, fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces for control of Bakhmut and other key towns in the eastern region of Donetsk continued unabated as the northeastern city of Kharkiv was targeted with missile and drone strikes overnight, the military said on March 31.

Russia targeted civilian infrastructure in the city of Kharkiv with nine missile strikes launched from S-300 air-to-surface systems and 10 Iranian-made Shahed drones, Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report, adding that nine drones were destroyed.

At least five civilians were wounded, authorities said.

"The enemy continues to ignore the laws and customs of war, using terror tactics against the peaceful citizens of our country," the military said.

WATCH: Ukrainian artillery targets Russian armored guns at a range of up to 28 kilometers in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut. Using a captured self-propelled cannon, a Ukrainian artillery crew is also trying to destroy Russian command posts.

Ukrainian Artillery Hunts Russian Howitzers As Battle For Bakhmut Grinds On
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In the southern Kherson region, Russian troops shelled settlements 64 times over the past day, killing one person and wounding two, the regional military administration reported on March 31.

The city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk was also struck by two Russian missiles that damaged eight residential buildings, the military said.

Heavy fighting continued in and around Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian defenders repelled 22 attacks over the past 24 hours, and in Avdiyivka, Lyman, and Maryinka.

A civilian was killed and six others were wounded by Russian shelling the area around Bakhmut, the governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kirylenko, wrote on Telegram on March 31.

Bakhmut, a mining city with a prewar population of 70,000 people, has become the epicenter of Russia's offensive for the control of eastern Ukraine. About 2,000 civilians are thought to be left in the city that has been all but razed to the ground.

In southern Ukraine, the city of Zaporizhzhya was targeted by overnight shelling by Russia that damaged civilian infrastructure, the secretary of the Zaporizhzhya city council, Anatoliy Kurtev, reported on Telegram.

Kurtev said no one was injured.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

White House Urges Russia To Act Professionally During UN Security Council Presidency

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya responds as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba asks for a minute of silence during a meeting of the UN Security Council to mark a year since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2023.

The White House has urged Russia to conduct itself professionally when it assumes its scheduled UN Security Council presidency next month. "Unfortunately, Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and no feasible international legal pathway exists to change that reality," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on March 30. "We expect Russia to continue to use its seat on the council to spread disinformation" and justify its actions in Ukraine. The presidency rotates to council members month by month. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Azerbaijan Denounces 'Slanderous' Comments By Top Iranian Commander

Iranian commander Kiumars Heydari (file photo)

Azerbaijan has denounced comments by a senior Iranian military commander who said members of the Islamic State militant group had fought for Azerbaijan and were still based in the country. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry on March 30 said the comments made by Kiumars Heydari, head of Iran's regular army ground forces, were "vile, defamatory, and slanderous," adding, "Generally speaking, there are no foreign elements on the territory of Azerbaijan." The ministry's response came a day after security services said they were investigating "a terrorist act" on lawmaker Fazil Mustafa, who has strong anti-Iranian views. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Mideast Envoy Hopeful Saudi-Iran Detente Will Help Region

The Biden administration is hopeful that warming ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help de-escalate conflicts and crises across the Middle East, a senior U.S. diplomat said on March 30. The detente between the two regional heavyweights could help bring Yemen's civil war to an end, Barbara Leaf said. Earlier this month, Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations -- a move that stirred cautious optimism across the region. "The first order is to see whether Iran will live up to its commitments in terms of Yemen," Leaf said.

U.S. Blacklists Slovak For Allegedly Facilitating Arms Deals Between North Korea, Russia

The United States has imposed sanctions on a Slovakian man who allegedly worked as a broker for Russia in its efforts to purchase arms and munitions from North Korea to support its war on Ukraine.

Ashot Mkrtychev, 56, of Bratislava was involved in arranging sales and barter deals for North Korea to ship weapons and munitions to Russia between late 2022 and early 2023, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a news release.

In exchange, Pyongyang would obtain cash, commercial aircraft, commodities, and raw materials, according to the Treasury Department.

Mkrtychev worked with officials from both sides to makes the deals happen, according to the Treasury.

"Mkrtychev's negotiations with DPRK and Russian officials detailed mutually beneficial cooperation between North Korea and Russia to include financial payments and barter arrangements," the department said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). "He confirmed Russia's readiness to receive military equipment from the DPRK with senior Russian officials."

Although the department did not say if any deals were completed or describe the specific weapons involved, it said its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against Mkrtychev.

The United States said last year amid an increase in air strikes on Ukraine that Russia has purchased artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said then that North Korea was shipping the ammunition to Russia but making it look like it was sending the arms to the Middle East or North Africa.

Kirby also said North Korea completed an arms delivery to the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.

Pyongyang has denied the U.S. claims.

Kirby said on March 30 that Russia continues to seek arms from the communist country.

"We have new information that Russia is actively seeking to acquire additional munitions from North Korea," Kirby said after the Treasury announced the sanctions against Mkrtychev.

The OFAC blacklist freezes any assets Mkrtychev holds within the jurisdiction of the United States and bans Americans and U.S. businesses, including banks, of having any dealings with him.

The move comes as Washington steps up sanctions targeting Russia's attempts to obtain military equipment to replenish stocks that have been depleted by the war in Ukraine.

"Russia has lost over 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment since the start of the war, and thanks in part to multilateral sanctions and export controls, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has become increasingly desperate to replace them," U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the statement.

Schemes like the alleged arms deal pursued by Mkrtychev "show that Putin is turning to suppliers of last resort like Iran and [North Korea]," she added.

"We remain committed to degrading Russia's military-industrial capabilities, as well as exposing and countering Russian attempts to evade sanctions and obtain military equipment from the DPRK or any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine," Yellen said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russian Soldier Jailed In Crimea For Desertion

A court in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea has sentenced a military serviceman to nine years in prison for desertion. The Crimea Garrison Military Court said on March 30 the defendant, whose identity was not disclosed, pleaded guilty and said he desert his unit in Crimea in September because he was unwilling to take part in the war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Russian, 63, Jailed For Seven Years For Anti-War Posts

A court in Moscow has sentenced a 63-year-old man to seven years in prison for two online posts last year condemning Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Timiryazev district court sentenced Mikhail Simonov on March 30 after finding him guilty of "discrediting the Russian armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine since it was launched by Moscow in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

UN Court Rejects Iranian Bid To Unfreeze Funds But Faults U.S. For Seizing Other Assets

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has rejected Iran's bid to unblock nearly $2 billion in assets belonging to its central bank that were frozen by the United States over alleged terrorist attacks.

The Hague-based court said on March 30 it did not have jurisdiction over $1.75 billion in bonds, plus accumulated interest, that are held in a Citibank account in New York.

But the court simultaneously found that the United States had "violated" the rights of some Iranians and companies whose assets were also frozen. The ruling ordered the United States to pay compensation, but said the amount should be determined through negotiation.

The ruling comes amid strained relations between the United States and Iran over the use of Iranian drones by Russia against Ukraine, attempts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, and a deadly strike last week involving Iran-backed militias in Syria and U.S. personnel.

The case before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, was initially brought by Tehran in 2016 claiming a breach of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which promised friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

The treaty was signed long before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed shah, and the subsequent severing of U.S.-Iranian relations. Washington withdrew from the treaty in 2018.

The ICJ ruled that the treaty was in place at the time of the freezing of the assets of Iranian commercial companies and entities, and therefore Washington violated it.

The United States argued the asset seizures were the result of Tehran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism and said the whole case should be dismissed because Iran had "unclean hands."

The court dismissed this defense and ruled the treaty was valid. It said if the countries fail in the negotiation of compensation, they will have to return to the ICJ for a ruling.

In another decision on the assets held at Citibank, the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the $1.75 billion in assets from Iran's central bank because that bank was not a commercial enterprise, and thus not protected by the treaty.

The United States has said the money is to be used to pay compensation to victims of a 1983 bombing in Lebanon and other attacks linked to Iran, which denies supporting international terrorism.

The rulings of the ICJ, the United Nations' top court, are binding, but it has no means of enforcing its rulings.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Clerics In Historic Kyiv Monastery Defy Eviction Notice, Deny Officials, Journalists Entry

UOC supporters gather at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv on March 30.

KYIV -- Clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) who have been ordered to leave the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in the Ukrainian capital on March 30 defied the eviction order and refused to allow officials from the Culture Ministry and journalists into the historic Orthodox Christian monastery.

Scuffles between members of the UOC and journalists broke out outside the 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site when clerics pushed reporters away from Metropolitan Pavlo, the monastery's abbot.

The UOC clerics refused to communicate with the journalists, who were at the monastery to cover the standoff, which developed after the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.

An RFE/RL correspondent's camera was struck and journalists of the Suspilne (Public) television channel were jostled as the clerics attempted to keep the journalists away from Pavlo.

Pavlo, meanwhile, threatened to hit journalists with a stick, urging them "instead of gabbing away" for "seas of money" to do "real" work, like "milking cows, gardening, etc."

The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said on March 30 that journalists' rights were violated as UOC followers did not allow them to use their cameras, covering their lenses with different objects, insulting reporters, and pushing them away from the entrance to the monastery, which is owned by the Ukrainian government.

The UOC is a branch of Ukraine's Orthodox Church that was previously under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May 2022 over Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.

Metropolitan Pavlo and other UOC officials also did not allow a commission of the Culture and Information Policy Ministry to enter the monastery, where it was scheduled to inspect buildings as the handover of the property was planned to start on March 30.

A day earlier, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said no force would be used to evict the monks from the monastery.

Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko condemned the "brutal" treatment of the commission members. The government filed a complaint with the police, Tkachenko said in a statement, adding that efforts to inspect the buildings would continue on March 31.

In November, Ukrainian security agents conducted a "counterintelligence" operation at the monastery and other UOC facilities as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russian activity.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country's main Orthodox Church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.

With reporting by Reuters

Siberian Actor Slits Wrist On Stage To Protest Anti-War Director's Firing

Artur Shuvalov slashes his wrist on stage at the Russian Drama Theater in Ulan-Ude on March 29.

ULAN-UDE, Russia -- An actor in a theater in the Siberian region of Buryatia has slashed his veins while on stage to protest the firing of the company's artistic director last year over his stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Artur Shuvalov of the Russian Drama Theater in Buryatia's capital, Ulan-Ude, slashed his wrist with a knife at the end of a play on March 29 in front of a live audience, saying that he and his colleagues had been under pressure for their attempts to get the theater's artistic director, Sergei Levitsky, back after he openly condemned the war in Ukraine.

Shuvalov said that hours earlier his wife, Svetlana Polyanskaya, who is an actress in the same theater, filed her resignation after coming under constant pressure from management for urging Levitsky's reinstatement.

Shuvalov is currently hospitalized with wounds to his arms. Buryatia Culture Minister Soelma Dagayeva said Shuvalov's life was not in danger.

Since Levitsky was fired last year, the theater's actors have demanded local authorities reinstate him and have held different types of protest, including removing the symbols of Russia's aggression against Ukraine from the theater's facade and raising awareness of the situation in local media.

The actors also complained that the new art director, Vyacheslav Dyachenko, had called them prostitutes by calling them "representatives of the oldest profession in the world," and demanding they perform "simple plays that are comprehensible to ordinary people."

"I do not want to hear that actors are similar to representatives of the oldest profession. I think our audience deserves smart performances, not those demanded by our artistic director. I am sorry. I am tired. I do not have any other choice," Shuvalov said before slashing his wrist, adding that Dyachenko and the theater's executive director, Natalya Svetozarova, would be responsible for his death.

Buryatia government officials said they were investigating the incident, including "events that preceded the incident."

Dagayeva added that Shuvalov's wife resigned of her own free will.

Tajik Opposition Politician's Son Extradited From Germany Sentenced To Seven Years In Prison

Abdullo Shamsiddin (file photo)

A son of Tajik opposition politician Shamsiddin Saidov, who was recently extradited to Tajikistan from Germany, has been sentenced to seven years in prison in Dushanbe after a trial Human Rights Watch (HRW) called unfair.

According to HRW, a court in the Tajik capital sentenced Abdullo Shamsiddin on March 29 after finding him guilty of "public calls to violent change of the constitutional order of Tajikistan."

"The trial started on March 28 and did not adhere to fair trial standards, including the right of defendants to challenge the evidence used against them, based on information available. Authorities should publicly present the evidence used to justify his conviction and in the meantime he should be immediately released from detention," the HRW's statement said.

Tajik authorities have yet to officially confirm the sentencing but Shamsiddin's father, Shamsiddin Saidov, who is currently residing in the European Union, confirmed to RFE/RL that his son was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Saidov is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). In January 2018, he was sentenced in absentia in Tajikistan to 15 years in prison on extremism charges.

Saidov said earlier that his 32-year-old son, who had lived in Germany since 2009, was deported from Germany due to his failure to reregister with the country's migration authorities on time.

The IRPT said at the time the decision to deport Shamsiddin might have been because he provided incorrect data to the immigration service.

The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the government and parliament, was labeled a terrorist group and banned in 2015.

Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing criticism from human rights groups.

Tajik authorities have been criticized for cracking down on dissent for years.

Captured Russian Soldier Given 12-Year Prison Sentence

The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier to 12 years in prison on a charge of violating of the laws of war, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 30. The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, Ukraine handed a similar sentence to Russian Air Force officer Aleksei Loboda for bombing civilian targets in Ukraine's eastern region of Kharkiv in March 2022. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Smaiylov Reappointed Kazakh PM

Alikhan Smaiylov (file photo)

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev reappointed Alikhan Smaiylov to the prime minister's post on March 30 after the newly elected parliament approved his candidacy. A day earlier, Smaiylov's government officially resigned as the parliament that was elected in snap polls on March 19 held its first session. The 50-year-old Smaiylov was promoted to the prime minister's post from the deputy prime minister position in January 2022 after the standing of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev dramatically weakened following unprecedented nationwide anti-government protests that turned to mass unrest, leaving at least 238 people dead. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russia's Ukraine Invasion 'Threatens' European Security, Says Britain's King Charles

King Charles III attends a state banquet held by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin on March 29.

Europe's security has come under threat amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Britain's King Charles told German MPs on March 30, adding however that "we can draw courage from our unity." "The scourge of war is back in Europe. The war of aggression against Ukraine has brought unimaginable suffering on so many innocent people," he said. "The security of Europe as well as our democratic values are under threat. But the world did not stand idly by.... We can draw courage from our unity."

Russian Actress, Kremlin Critic Akhedzhakova Leaves Moscow Theater Amid Pressure

Ukraine-born Liya Akhedzhakova has been targeted before for her activism. (file photo)

Popular Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova, known for her open criticism of Kremlin policies including its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has left the prominent Moscow theater Sovremennik (Contemporary) amid pressure from authorities and pro-government activists.

Akhedzhakova told the Novaya gazeta newspaper on March 30 that she submitted her resignation letter 20 days earlier and she now plans to switch to touring activities. The theater has not commented on the issue.

She said she does not plan to leave Russia despite the pressure campaign imposed on her over her stance against Russia's war against Ukraine.

On February 8, the administration of Sovremennik, where Akhedzhakova had performed since 1977, canceled a performance of Playing Genie with Akhedzhakova's participation. The theater explained the move by saying Akhedzhakova was "unwell," a claim Akhedzhakova rejected, telling Novaya gazeta that she wanted to perform.

Akhedzhakova also said the theater's director had complained to her that he was "literally overwhelmed by angry letters condemning her" for her stance against the war in Ukraine.

In December, a theater in St. Petersburg canceled another play Akhedzhakova was scheduled to perform in following her public calls to stop the war in Ukraine.

Ukraine-born Akhedzhakova has been targeted before for her activism.

In 2021, Sovremennik canceled a play in which she had a leading role after the Kremlin-backed Officers of Russia nongovernmental organization accused her of propagating same-sex relations and insulting World War II veterans.

The Sovremennik theater was founded in the late 1950s by a group of young Soviet actors during the Khrushchev Thaw. Dozens of actors who were extremely popular in the former Soviet Union started their careers at the Sovremennik.

With reporting by Novaya gazeta

EU Says China's Role In Ukraine Conflict Is Vital To EU Relations

Ursula von der Leyen

China must play a part in pressing for a "just peace" in Ukraine and its role in the conflict will be vital in shaping relations with the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point," von der Leyen said in a speech in Brussels on the eve of a trip to Beijing. "How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

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