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Iran Nuke Deal, Rise Of China Are Hot Topics At Munich Conference

Journalists watch a live transmission of Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki addressing the Munich Security Conference.
MUNICH -- The biggest news at this year’s Munich Security Conference came in the dead of night.

When Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki made a surprise appearance at the annual gathering of international luminaries on February 5, organizers scrambled to reorganize the schedule to give him a forum, adding an impromptu late-night panel that stretched past midnight.

He didn’t waste the opportunity. Taking the stage with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Mottaki announced that a deal for Iran to ship its enriched uranium abroad in exchange for nuclear fuel was imminent.

"Under present conditions, I think we have reached, we are approaching, a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties," he said.

I think we have reached, we are approaching, a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties.
Mottaki also held what he described as a "very good meeting" today with the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano.

"We discussed and exchanged views on a wide range of issues -- views about the proposal that is on the table," Mottaki said.

For his part, Amano declined to predict any sort of breakthrough, saying only, "Dialogue is continuing; this should be accelerated."

The Rise Of China

In contrast to the recent past, this year’s security conference has been a relatively low-key affair.

There have been no headline-grabbing policy speeches like U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement last year that Washington was ready to “press the reset button” in relations with Russia. There have been no high-stakes showdowns, as in 2003 when then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, sparred over the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq.

And there certainly have been no “holy cow” moments, like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling speech in 2007 assailing the United States for seeking global hegemony.

China's Yang Jiechi: "Turn down your heating."
Instead, the underlying subtext of this year’s event has been the unmistakable rise of China as a key world power and the shift in the international center of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic region to Asia. That shift was underscored by China making its first-ever official appearance at the event; with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi making the conference’s opening address on February 5.

In a breezy, confident, and often humorous speech, Yang sought to address criticisms of Beijing’s human rights record and what many in the West consider its less-than-enthusiastic approach to combating climate change. Visibly perspiring, Yang said Beijing “takes climate change very seriously,” adding that the conference room was being kept much warmer than homes in China.

“If you want to discuss climate change with me, you had best turn down your central heating,” he said.

'Every Reason To Feel Indignant'

Yang used less levity when addressing the recent decision by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to sell arms to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

"This is obviously a violation of the code of conduct among nations, and this is a violation of the three joint communiques issued between China and the United States," he said. "I think the Chinese people and the government have every reason to feel indignant about this thing."

China and Russia, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have been consistent opponents of imposing tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Yang stressed that the international community needs to recognize that Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, even as it seeks to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"The Iranian nuclear issue -- this issue has entered a crucial stage," Yang said. "The parties concerned should, with the overall and long-term interests in mind, step up diplomatic efforts, stay patient, and adopt a more flexible, pragmatic, and proactive policy."

Hours later, Mottaki announced that he thought a breakthrough was close.

The uranium swap deal was first floated in UN-sanctioned talks last year between Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- seeking to negotiate a solution to the nuclear impasse. The international community saw the deal as a way to guarantee that Tehran, which claims that its nuclear program is for strictly peaceful purposes, did not enrich its uranium to a level that would allow it to build a nuclear bomb.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Munich: "Our hand is still reaching out..."
Mottaki’s optimistic comments came just days after Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced in televised comments on February 2 that Tehran was prepared to send its uranium abroad for further enrichment.

'Met Only Emptiness'

Western officials in Munich reacted skeptically to Mottaki’s announcement, however.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Iran’s track record to date has not given the international community confidence that it is ready to make meaningful concessions over its nuclear program.

"Our hand is still reaching out, but so far it has met only emptiness. And unfortunately, I have not seen anything since yesterday that can change that view," Westerwelle said. "If there is really to be a new approach to cooperation, the words coming out of Iran must be followed by concrete action."

Likewise, National Security Adviser James Jones, the highest-ranking member of the U.S. delegation in Munich, warned that Iran must follow its words with actions if it wants to win the confidence of the international community and avoid fresh sanctions.

"The unprecedented degree of international consensus and unity on Iran with regard to its nuclear program demonstrates that Tehran must meet its responsibilities or face stronger sanctions and perhaps even deeper isolation," Jones said. "Hanging in the balance is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and greater proliferation concerns worldwide. I can think of no greater concern at the moment to our collective security."

The conference has featured panel discussions with policy makers and experts discussing themes ranging from energy policy and European security to nuclear disarmament and the Middle East peace process. It wraps up on February 7 with sessions on NATO’s future and the conflict in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report from Prague

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Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (file photo)

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Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called on Georgian authorities in a statement on February 7 "to stop settling political scores with a Ukrainian citizen and ensure compliance with his rights and hand him over to Ukraine."

A day earlier, Judge Giorgi Arevadze rejected Saakashvili's request to suspend his sentence, a move Saakashvili called a "death sentence" handed to him by his political opponents.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it was "disappointed with the decision of the Tbilisi City Court."

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Saakashvili, who was Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

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Russian authorities have used courts to intensify pressure on the free press since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February last year.

Novaya gazeta was founded in part with money from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and had been one of the most respected publications in post-Soviet Russia since 1993. It suspended operations inside the country in March after being forced to remove material from its website on Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

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Novaya gazeta’s chief editor Dmitry Muratov, a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has remained in Russia despite his vocal opposition to the conflict in Ukraine.

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In the western Iranian city of Sanandaj, a group of protesters blocked the street leading to the central prison of Sanandaj by lighting a fire and chanting anti-government slogans, including "death to the dictator," a reference to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Authorities in the northeastern Iranian city of Kashmar have shut down a clinic after a confrontation between two women over wearing a head scarf, a topic that has been at the center of months of unrest since a young woman died while in police custody after being detained over how she was wearing hers.

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The Olympic committees of five Nordic countries have reiterated their opposition to allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The countries said in a statement on February 7 that the situation in Ukraine has not changed.

“Therefore, we stand firm in our position, not to open for Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international sports participation,” the statement said. “Now is not the right time to consider their return; that is our position.”

The Olympic Committees and Paralympic Committees representing Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the sports confederations of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Aland issued the statement after meeting on February 3.

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The statement said the committees also reaffirmed their steadfast support for the Ukrainian people and the demand for peace.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said last month that it was exploring a "pathway" to allow Russian and Belarusian competitors to take part in the Paris Olympics. Ukraine responded to that announcement by saying it would consider boycotting the Paris games.

Other European countries remain angered by the Olympic body’s statement, saying efforts to restore the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, who were banned after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last February, were ill-timed given that the military conflict continues.

The three Baltic nations and Poland last week noted the possibility that Russian and Belarusian athletes could be allowed to participate under a neutral flag. They said this would "legitimize the political decisions and extensive propaganda of these countries" and allow them to use sport as a distraction from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also criticized it, saying it would be “a legitimization of the criminal aggression against Ukraine," adding on Twitter, "We won't allow sport to be used against humanity & for war propaganda!"

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said earlier on February 7 that she was opposed to Russians competing at the Olympics in her city if the war in Ukraine was still going on.

The statement from her office represents a change in position by Hidalgo, who said last month she believed Russians could take part "under a neutral flag" to avoid "depriving athletes of competition."

With reporting by AFP

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A court in Uzbekistan's southwestern city of Bukhara has started the trial of another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in unsanctioned anti-government protests in the Central Asian nation's Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan last year.

Uzbekistan's Supreme Court said on February 7 that 20 of the defendants are charged with organizing mass unrest, while seven are charged with distributing materials inciting social discord, seven others with inflicting serious bodily damage, four with the illegal use of firearms, and one person is charged with torture and blackmail.

The same court last week sentenced the first group of Karakalpak activists -- 22 individuals -- sending lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov to prison for 16 years on charges of plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.

Four defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody.

Another 17 defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between three years and 8 1/2 years. It remains unclear how the defendants pleaded.

Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General’s Office said on February 6 that one of the activists convicted last week and handed a six-year prison term, Polat Shamshetov, had died over the weekend while in custody of "thromboembolism of the pulmonary artery and acute heart failure."

Self-exiled Karakalpak activists have expressed suspicions that the 45-year-old Shamshetov might have been tortured to death in custody and have demanded a thorough investigation of his death.

Uzbek authorities say 21 people died in Karakalpakstan during the protests, which were sparked by the announcement in early July 2022 of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the region's right to self-determination.

The violence in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.

Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing away from the proposed changes.

Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.

Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than 2 million people, out of a nation of 35 million, but it covers more than one-third of Uzbekistan's territory.

The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.

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Russian Court Reduces Sentence Of Self-Exiled Activist Shevchenko

Anastasia Shevchenko (file photo)

A Russian court has cut the prison term handed down to the self-exiled former coordinator of the defunct Open Russia group, Anastasia Shevchenko, by one year, putting the sentence at two years.

Shevchenko, who fled Russia for Lithuania last summer, tweeted the court decision -- the second time that a year was cut from her original sentence -- on February 6. She gave no reason for the reduction of the sentence.

In December, a court in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don ruled in absentia to replace Shevchenko's suspended sentence with a real prison term at the Federal Penitentiary Service's request.

Shevchenko was initially handed a four-year suspended sentence in February 2021 for having links with the opposition group Open Russia. The sentence was later cut by one year.

Shevchenko was the first person in Russia charged with “repeatedly participating in the activities of an undesirable organization.” Previously, violations of this law were punished as a noncriminal offense.

Shevchenko's supporters have said the case was a politically motivated attempt to stop her activism and punish her for showing dissent publicly.

The “undesirable organization” law, adopted in May 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources.

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Open Russia "undesirable” in 2017.

During her pretrial house arrest in January 2019, Shevchenkowas granted a furlough at the last minute to see her eldest daughter in the hospital shortly before she died of an unspecified illness.

Prosecutor Seeks Nine Years In Prison For Siberian Journalist Charged With 'Discrediting' Russian Armed Forces

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Ukraine To Receive 100 Leopard 1 Battle Tanks, German Defense Minister Says In Kyiv

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius presents a miniature copy of a Leopard tank to his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksiy Reznikov in Kyiv on February 7.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has made a surprise visit to Kyiv, where he announced that Ukraine is to receive more than 100 battle tanks of the older Leopard 1 type from several European countries.

The number of tanks is enough to equip at least three battalions, Pistorius said without naming the countries aside from Germany that will send the Leopard 1 tanks. They are to be shipped by the first or second quarter of 2024.

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Pistorius, who took the job of defense minister less than three weeks ago, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov during his visit.

"Thank you to @Bundeskanzler my colleague Boris Pistorius and the German people. The tank coalition is victory!" Reznikov said on Twitter.

The German government last week said that it had approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine but the government spokesperson who made the announcement declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported.

A joint statement issued by the Economy Ministry and the Defense Ministry said the export of up to 178 Leopard 1A5 main battle tanks to Ukraine had been approved. The statement added the exact number that will be delivered "depends on the required maintenance work."

The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged to send Ukraine last month after the United States agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks. Germany initially showed reluctance to provide Leopard tanks or to allow third countries that have Leopard tanks to send them to Ukraine.

Reznikov's tweet showed him and Pistorius holding a model of the Leopard 2, saying the "first" of the pledged battle tanks had arrived in Kyiv. "There will be more of them," he added.

Ukraine has asked its Western allies for heavier weapons to confront invading Russian troops who continue to launch attacks along the front lines in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv’s military reported more attacks on February 7 as Ukrainian officials continued to warn that Moscow was preparing for a fresh offensive in the region.

Russia’s military launched six missile and 24 air strikes in the previous 24 hours, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian military early on February 7. The General Staff also reported 75 artillery strikes, including on civilian targets in the eastern and southeastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kherson. It said there had been an unspecified number of civilian casualties.

Later, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk regional military administration, reported that one person had been killed and five wounded as a result of overnight shelling in the Donetsk region.

The General Staff also said that 1,030 Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine over the 24-hour period, although such casualty figures are impossible to verify.

The fresh fighting comes after Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said that Russia is deploying reinforcements in eastern Ukraine ahead of a possible new offensive.

"We are seeing more and more (Russian) reserves being deployed in our direction, we are seeing more equipment being brought in," Hayday told Ukrainian television on February 6.

"They bring ammunition that is used differently than before -- it is not round-the-clock shelling anymore. They are slowly starting to save, getting ready for a full-scale offensive," Hayday claimed.

Britain's Defense Intelligence said in its daily report on February 7 that Russia's military has likely attempted since early January to restart major offensive operations aimed at capturing Ukraine-held parts of Donetsk.

However, Russian forces have gained little territory as they "lack munitions and maneuver units required for a successful offensive", it said.

Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces are fighting attempts by Russian troops to surround the city of Bakhmut and break the city's defenses.

Speaking in his evening address on February 6, Zelenskiy thanked every soldier involved, singling out specific brigades.

Intense fighting has been raging for weeks around Bakhmut and the nearby towns of Soledar and Vuhledar, Ukraine’s presidential office said.

For months Russia's main target in eastern Ukraine has been Bakhmut, where its state media said the Wagner mercenary group had gained a foothold.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters

Almost 8 Million People Have Fled Ukraine, UN Aid Chief Says

Some 17.6 million people, or almost 40 percent of Ukraine's population, need humanitarian assistance.

The UN's emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said that nearly 8 million people have fled Ukraine since the beginning of Russia's invasion almost a year ago. Almost 8 million people fled from Ukraine to neighboring countries, while another 5.3 million are internally displaced, Griffiths told the UN Security Council in New York on February 6. The head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that 17.6 million people, or almost 40 percent of Ukraine's population, need humanitarian assistance.

Russian Pleads Guilty In U.S. On Money-Laundering Charge

Russian citizen Denis Dubnikov pleaded guilty on February 6 to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to the U.S. District Court of Oregon. Dubnikov is scheduled to be sentenced on April 11. The Russian national, who had been sought by U.S. prosecutors for allegedly laundering cryptocurrency tied to a notorious ransomware gang, was extradited to the United States from the Netherlands in August. U.S. prosecutors accuse Dubnikov and his co-conspirators of laundering the proceeds of ransomware attacks. They allegedly laundered $400,000 in payments from victims of Ryuk, a ransomware gang believed to have extracted $70 million from individuals and companies around the world, including in the United States.

U.S. Vice President To Map Out Next Steps To Aid Ukraine At Munich Security Conference

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (file photo)

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to discuss Washington's future support for Ukraine when she travels to a major security conference in Germany next week. Harris will travel to the Munich Security Conference, scheduled to begin on February 16, as Ukraine readies itself for a new Russian offensive. A White House official said Harris will use her speech to celebrate the courage of the Ukrainian people, reaffirm international support for the country, condemn Russia's actions, reaffirm Washington's mutual defense commitments under NATO, and "outline the path forward" on Ukraine. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Invited To Take Part In EU Summit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been invited to take part in a summit of European Union leaders, the EU said on February 6. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, invited Zelenskiy "to participate in person in a future summit," Michel spokesman Barend Leyts tweeted. Leyts did not say when Zelenskiy might take up the invitation and specified that no further information would be provided "for security reasons." The next EU summit is scheduled to take place on February 9-10 in Brussels. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Salman Rushdie To Release New Novel, Six Months After Stabbing Attack

Salman Rushdie (file photo)

A new novel by Salman Rushdie will be published on February 7, nearly six months after a man repeatedly stabbed the writer onstage during a lecture in New York state in what was widely condemned as an attack on freedom of expression. Rushdie, 75, was blinded in his right eye and his left hand was badly injured in the stabbing, which happened more than three decades after Iran instructed Muslims to kill Rushdie because of what religious leaders alleged was blasphemy in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Poll Shows Steady Support Among Americans For Ukraine Reclaiming Its Territory

Rescuers carry a woman who was wounded inside a residential building by a Russian missile strike in central Kharkiv on February 5.

Nearly one year into the war in Ukraine, Americans’ support for Kyiv holds steady, according to a Gallup poll released on February 6. The poll shows 65 percent of U.S. adults polled want the United States to support Ukraine in reclaiming its territory, even if that results in a prolonged conflict. Thirty-one percent said they would rather see the United States work to end the war quickly, even if this allows Russia to keep territory captured in its invasion. The data is from a Gallup web survey conducted January 3-22.

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