Defense Chief Calls Afghanistan 'Greatest Military Challenge' For U.S.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said the effort to defeat militants and help develop a nation that rejects the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban will be difficult -- more difficult, perhaps, than the war in Iraq.
The country's top defense official also sought to redefine what success in Afghanistan might realistically look like -- not a thriving, prosperous democracy, but a place where Al-Qaeda no longer finds safe haven and the people reject rule by Islamic extremists in favor of a democratically elected government.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq over the next 16 months and add as many as 30,000 more U.S. troops to the current force of 36,000 already in Afghanistan, which he considers the central front in the fight against terrorism.
'No Purely Military Solution'
In his testimony, Gates endorsed the plan to increase the size of the Afghan force to mount a stronger defense against increasingly bold Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.
"As in Iraq, there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan," Gates said. "But it is also clear that we have not had enough troops to provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas -- a vacuum that increasingly has been filled by the Taliban."
But he also said assessments are under way that take into account lessons learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq and eight years in Afghanistan, and that a way forward is beginning to emerge.
"While this will undoubtedly be a long and difficult fight, we can attain what I believe should be among our strategic objectives," Gates said. "Above all, an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, who reject the rule of the Taliban, and support the legitimate government they have elected and in which they have a stake. "
The Pentagon could send two more brigades to the country by late spring, and a third by July in an effort to improve the security situation, which has dramatically worsened in recent months.
'Words Of Caution'
On Iraq, Gates called the Status of Forces Agreement that went into effect January 1 a "watershed" that marks the beginning of an orderly drawdown of U.S. forces there.
He also offered what he said were "words of caution."
"Though the violence [in Iraq] has remained low, there is still the potential for setbacks. And there may be hard days ahead for our troops," Gates warned. "As our military presence decreases over time, we should still expect to be involved in Iraq, on some level, for many years to come, assuming a sovereign Iraq continues to seek our partnership."
Obama will meet with military planners on January 28 for a briefing on a range of options for ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq by as early as May 2010.
In response to questioning, Gates acknowledged that the high rate of civilian casualties in Afghanistan caused by U.S. forces and their allies has angered and alienated the Afghan people.
"I will tell you that I believe that the civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better in terms of avoiding casualties," Gates said. "And I say that knowing full well the Taliban mingle among the people, use them as barriers, but when we go ahead and attack, we play right into their hands."
A report by Human Rights Watch from September 2008 found that air strikes killed at least 321 civilians in 2007, compared with 116 in 2006. In November, there was widespread anger after international forces called in an air strike against a suspected Taliban hideout in Kandahar Province and mistakenly killed as many as 40 members of a wedding party.
"We have got to figure out a better way to do these things, or to have the Afghans in the lead, because my worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution," Gates said. "And then we are lost."
At one point, former Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain asked Gates whether terrorists are operating openly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, two of the most violent areas of the country. Gates said he has received conflicting intelligence, but that troops on the ground say the situation, while not worse, is "different."
He said the Taliban's ability to freely cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has given them "greater freedom of action than they've had in the last couple of years."
An analysis of 13,000 violent incidents in Afghanistan in 2007 by the Kabul-based consultancy Tundra Strategic Security Solutions showed that the Taliban are increasingly using open-warfare techniques.
Ambushes and attacks with more than one kind of weapon comprised 2,555 incidents in 2008, up 117 percent from 2007, the analysis showed.
'Very Strong Message'
Also in Washington on January 27, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, briefed members of the foreign press and echoed the defense chief on U.S. military priorities.
"I think the top priority for us right now is Afghanistan-Pakistan," Mullen said. "I think President Obama has made that clear and you see that emphasized, and you will see that emphasized, in where the military will be engaged.
"We've talked for weeks now about commander General [David] McKiernan's additional request for forces. We've looked at the planning options to support that, even though all those decisions haven't been made yet. And all that to me sends a very strong message that Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the top of the list," Mullen added
Mullen said he advocates a regional approach to Afghanistan, which means engaging in dialogue with Pakistan and India, as well as Iran, whose nuclear activities "remain a great concern."
"I have said for many, many months, I think it's important to engage Iran," Mullen said. "Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways, in many, many areas. And so I wouldn't be overly optimistic at this point, but there are mutual interests and I think that that might offer some possibilities."
Obama has spoken often about the need for NATO allies to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan, and Mullen said both he and Gates have been trying to persuade European allies to do so.
He noted that there are 10,000 more NATO troops in Afghanistan this year than there were last year, and said if Obama approached European governments, he hoped they would respond favorably.
Opposition Figure Musavi Calls For 'Free' Referendum In Iran, Drafting Of New Constitution
Iranian opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi has called for a "free" referendum in Iran and the drafting of a new constitution. Musavi who has been under house arrest since 2011, made the call in a statement released on February 4 in which he said Iranians want fundamental change based on the slogan "Woman, life, freedom," which many have been chanting during recent antiestablishment protests. Musavi said the the three words are "the seeds of a bright future free of oppression, poverty, humiliation, and discrimination." Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi were put under house arrest in February 2011 for challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the disputed 2009 presidential vote and criticizing human rights abuses. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Venezuela's Maduro, Iranian Diplomat Discuss Defense Against 'External Pressures'
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the visiting Iranian foreign minister have discussed the need for "vigilance in defending their national interests against external pressures," according to a statement released on February 4. The Caracas visit by Foreign Minister Ossein Amir-Abdollahian underlined the strength of an alliance between two countries seen as outcasts by much of the international community, both of them subject to U.S. sanctions. Maduro received Abdollahian on the evening of February 3 in the Miraflores presidential palace after the Iranian minister arrived from Managua, Nicaragua. "I am sure that our relations will continue to strengthen for technological, industrial, scientific, and cultural exchanges that benefit both peoples," Maduro wrote on Twitter, calling the meeting "productive."
At Least Two Civilians Wounded In Bomb Blast In Kabul
At least two civilians were wounded in a bomb blast in Kabul city on February 4, police said. Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran said that the blast was caused by a magnetic bomb that was attached to a private vehicle. An investigative team was inspecting the scene of the explosion, police added. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack that comes after several weeks of calm. When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the Islamic State group intensified its attacks in Afghanistan, mainly targeting religious minorities, members of the Taliban, and areas where foreign diplomats live.
WHO Report On Ukraine Health Emergency Sparks U.S.-Russia Dispute
The United States and Russia faced off on February 4 over a World Health Organization (WHO) report on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with Moscow saying it was politically motivated and Washington calling for it to be swiftly updated. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus's report was presented to the organization's executive board, on which both Russia and the United States sit. It covered events in the first nine months of 2022 and classed the situation in Ukraine, which Russia invaded on February 24, as one of eight acute global health emergencies. The report documented more than 14,000 civilian casualties, with 17.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 7.5 million Ukrainian refugees displaced across Europe. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Weighs Sanctions For Chinese Companies Over Iran Surveillance Buildup
The United States is considering new sanctions on Chinese surveillance companies over sales to Iran's security forces, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 4, citing people familiar with the matter. U.S. authorities are in advanced discussions on the sanctions and have zeroed in on Tiandy Technologies Co, an electrical equipment manufacturer based in the Chinese city of Tianjin whose products have been sold to units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the report added. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Three Bulgarians Detained At Border With North Macedonia
North Macedonia's Interior Ministry has said that three Bulgarian citizens were detained on February 4 at the Deve Bair border crossing with Bulgaria for disturbing public order.
A group of Bulgarian citizens were waiting to enter North Macedonia on February 4 to pay their respects at the tomb of revolutionary Goce Delchev on the occasion of the 151st anniversary of his birth.
Delchev is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero in the fight for the liberation from the Ottoman Empire.
The ministry announced on February 4 that the three were detained for disturbing public order and peace.
The three Bulgarians, identified only as G.Z. (35), A.H. (50), and R.H. (54), "first behaved verbally impudently and inappropriately using most derogatory words and then tried to physically attack the police officers who took legal action, detaining the three while work is being done to completely clear up the case," the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry said that all border crossings between the two Balkan neighbors were forced to close for several hours because of a fault in the border-control system. Border traffic resumed after the fault was fixed, it said.
Earlier this week, the interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during Delchev's upcoming celebration.
Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the Fberuary 4 celebration in Skopje.
The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev’s birth caused further concern.
A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.
Bilateral tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating in Ohrid of Hristijan Pendikov, a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.
Following the incident, Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje.
Demerdziev said on January 30 that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in the Republic of North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.
Relations between the two neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic differences that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.
Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.
Pakistan Blocks Wikipedia Over 'Blasphemous Content'
Wikipedia was blocked in Pakistan on February 4 after authorities censored the website for hosting "blasphemous content" in the latest blow to digital rights in the deeply conservative country. Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, and social-media giants Facebook and YouTube have previously been banned for publishing content deemed sacrilegious. Pakistan had earlier in the week given Wikipedia a 48 hour ultimatum to remove material, without publicly specifying its exact objections.
Ukraine, Russia Exchange Prisoners; Kyiv Recovers Bodies Of Foreign Humanitarian Volunteers
Russia and Ukraine on February 4 announced an exchange of prisoners that led to the release of 63 Russians and 116 Ukrainians and the return of the bodies of two foreign volunteers who were involved in humanitarian work in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the return of its 63 Russian soldiers in a statement on its Telegram channel. The statement said that among those released were persons belonging to a "sensitive category," without elaborating.
It added that the exchange was facilitated "thanks to the mediation of the leadership of the United Arab Emirates."
Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, reported that 116 prisoners had returned home.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine's presidential office, wrote on Telegram that among them were "defenders of Mariupol, Kherson partisans, snipers from the Bakhmut area."
In addition, Yermak wrote, the bodies of two dead foreign volunteers -- Briton Christopher Matthew Parry and New Zealander Andrew Tobias Matthew Bagshaw -- as well as the body of deceased Ukrainian volunteer Yevhen Kulik, who served in the French Foreign Legion, were returned to Ukraine.
Parry and Bagshaw, two volunteers who were helping with the evacuation of civilians and delivering humanitarian aid, were reported missing on January 7 in Donetsk.
They had last been seen the previous day on their way from Kramatorsk to Soledar, where heavy fighting had been under way between Ukrainian defenders and Russian forces.
Soon after, the family of one of the two volunteers said that the men were killed during an attempt to carry out a humanitarian evacuation.
Yermak also published a short video purporting to show released Ukrainian prisoners traveling by bus and two photos of men holding Ukrainian flags in front of a bus.
U.S. Attorney General Allows First Transfer Of Russian Oligarch's Confiscated Assets To Ukraine
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on February 3 that the frozen assets of a Russian oligarch will be transferred to Ukraine. "Today I am announcing that I have authorized the first-ever transfer of confiscated Russian assets for use in Ukraine," he said. The assets were seized after the indictment of oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev on sanctions-evasion charges. Garland said the assets will be transferred to the State Department to be spent "in support of the people of Ukraine." Garland made the announcement during a meeting with Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Serbian Parliament Adopts Government Report On Negotiations With Kosovo
The Serbian parliament on February 3 adopted the government's report on negotiations with Kosovo. The vote was 154-23 while nine members did not vote. The parliament discussed the report during a two-day session that began after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic received the European Union's proposal for normalizing relations with Kosovo. The proposal, which has not been fully released, has the backing of the United States and the European Union. Vucic discussed some of the provisions of the proposal on February 2 and warned that Serbia could become isolated if it rejects the proposal. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
U.S. Warned Turkey On Exports Seen To Boost Russia's War Effort, Official Says
The United States has warned Turkey in recent days about the export to Russia of chemicals, microchips, and other products that can be used in Moscow's war effort in Ukraine, and it could move to enforce existing bans, according to a senior U.S. official. Brian Nelson, the U.S. Treasury Department's top sanctions official, visited Turkish government and private-sector officials on February 2-3 to urge more cooperation in disrupting the flow of such goods, the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the talks. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iran Slams IAEA Chief After Centrifuge Report; U.S., Allies Criticize Tehran's Response
Iran slammed UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised concerns over covert changes to equipment at its Fordow uranium-enrichment plant, state media said on February 4. The IAEA said in a confidential report seen by AFP on February 1 that Iran had substantially modified an interconnection between two centrifuge clusters enriching uranium to up to 60 percent at thhe Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), without giving prior notice. "We gave a letter to the agency that an inspector...made a mistake and gave an incorrect report," Iranian nuclear chief Mohamad Eslami was quoted as saying by IRNA. The United States issued a joint statement with France, the United Kingdom, and Germany on February 3 criticizing Iran's "inadequate" response to the report on its nuclear program.
Zelenskiy Says Situation In Eastern Ukraine Getting More Difficult As Odesa Battles To Restore Power
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned on February 4 that Russia was throwing more and more forces into battle and that the situation on the front lines in the eastern parts of the country was getting more severe.
"The occupier is throwing more and more of his forces into breaking down our defenses," Zelenskiy said in his nighty video address, adding that the situation was "very difficult" in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Lyman, and other areas.
His warning came as Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said that power had been restored to critical infrastructure in the southern port city of Odesa following an accident at a substation.
"Power to all critical infrastructure has been restored. The city will therefore have water and heat," Halushchenko said on Facebook.
"About one-third of the city's consumers now have lighting," he said, without offering more details.
Earlier, regional Governor Maksym Marchenko said a "serious" accident at a high-voltage substation had left a half-million households without power in Odesa, confirming earlier reports about an accident at a facility that was previously targeted in Russian strikes.
"A serious accident occurred at one of the energy facilities, which caused a fire," he said, adding that emergency measures were being taken.
Earlier, an air-raid alert for the whole of Ukraine was canceled without any reports of Russian shelling as Ukrainian defenders faced renewed attacks by Moscow's troops in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours.
The alert, which lasted for about two hours in the morning, was the third in two days. No massive Russian strikes on civilian and infrastructure targets were reported on February 3 either.
Amid warnings that a massive Russian offensive is in the making as Moscow's unprovoked invasion nears the one-year mark, the military said fighting had intensified in the Donbas.
"The enemy continues offensive operations in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk], suffering heavy losses," Ukraine's General Staff said in its report.
Battles have been raging for months for the city of Bakhmut, where waves of Russian attackers are piling increasing pressure on the Ukrainian forces.
Witnesses have told RFE/RL that street fighting is under way in Bakhmut, with building-by-building combat on the outskirts of the city.
Zelenskiy said on February 3 that Ukrainian forces will continue their fight to hold on to Bakhmut. "Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," he said.
Zelenskiy's comments come after U.S. media reports saying the United States had advised Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut. U.S. officials quoted by Bloomberg said this would allow Kyiv to gather forces for a spring offensive.
The General Staff said on February 4 that the Ukrainian military also repelled Russian attacks in the Grekivka, Nevske, Kreminna, and Dibrova settlements in the Luhansk region.
Russian forces carried out 20 air strikes and three missile strikes, the military said, targeting civilian infrastructure of the Kharkiv and Mykolayiv regions, causing civilian casualties.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces "have a chance" of beating back a looming Russian offensive if supplied with the right Western weapons.
"If weapon [supplies] are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the [Russian] occupiers from the Donbas," he said.
Zelenskiy said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability.
On February 4, Zelenskiy said he discussed the "further expansion of capabilities" of Ukraine's military in a call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Zelenskiy said he also thanked Sunak for the start of training of Ukrainian crews on Challenger 2 tanks.
"The prime minister said he was focused on ensuring the U.K.'s defensive military equipment reached the front line as quickly as possible," Sunak's office said in a readout of the call.
"Both leaders agreed that it was vital that international partners accelerated their assistance to Ukraine to help seize the opportunity to push Russian forces back," it added.
The United States on February 3 announced a fresh $2.2 billion package of military aid for Ukraine that will include rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Ukraine now has.
The Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in the package announced by the Pentagon.
GLSDBs have a range roughly double that of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied.
Kyiv is requesting more powerful modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, even after securing pledges from its Western allies to send tanks as its forces brace for an expected new Russian onslaught in the east.
Meanwhile, Portugal will send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on February 4, without specifying how many will be shipped.
Costa added that Portugal is in talks with Germany to obtain parts needed for the repair of a number of inoperable Leopard tanks in Portugal's inventory.
"I know how many tanks will be (sent to Ukraine) but that will be announced at the appropriate time," Costa told the Lusa news agency during a trip to the Central African Republic.
The EU announced on February 3 that it is ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, raising it from an initial target of 15,000 troops to up to 30,000.
With reporting by Reuters. dpa, and AFP
EU Agrees On Price Caps On Russian Refined Oil Products
European Union countries agreed to set price caps on Russian refined oil products to limit Moscow's funds for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU said on February 3. EU diplomats said the price caps are $100 per barrel on products that trade at a premium to crude, principally diesel, and $45 per barrel for products that trade at a discount, such as fuel oil. Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. The price caps follow a $60 per barrel cap on Russian crude that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations imposed on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
New U.S. Aid Package For Ukraine Includes Rockets With Longer Striking Range
A new package of U.S. military aid for Ukraine announced on February 3 includes rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Kyiv now has. The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in a $2.2 billion U.S. military aid package announced by the Pentagon. GLSDBs has a range roughly double that of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied. As part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the United States “will be providing a Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb to Ukraine," Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
U.S. Targets Executives Of Iranian Drone Maker In Latest Sanctions Designation
The United States has imposed new sanctions on a previously designated Iranian drone maker, Paravar Pars, this time targeting the board of directors.
The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 3 that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had designated eight senior executives of Paravar Pars.
The drone maker was previously blacklisted by OFAC for making Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Treasury Department said in a news release.
"Iranian entities continue to produce UAVs for Iran's IRGC and military. More broadly, Iran is supplying UAVs for Russia's combat operations to target critical infrastructure in Ukraine," said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“The United States will continue to aggressively target all elements of Iran’s UAV program,” added Nelson, who is the U.S. Treasury's top sanctions official, in the statement.
Among the eight individuals blacklisted are Paravar Pars’ managing director and CEO, Hossein Shamsabadi, and the company’s chairman, Ali Reza Tangsiri, who is also the commander of the IRGC Navy. Tangsiri, who the Treasury Department said has overseen the testing of UAVs and cruise missiles, was previously designated for U.S. sanctions in 2019.
The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdictions by the eight individuals. People in the United States who engage in transactions with the individuals designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.
The department earlier his week put new trade restrictions on seven Iranian entities for producing drones that the Treasury Department said Russia has used to attack Ukraine.
In response, Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York said sanctions have no effect on Iran's drone production capacity because its drones are all produced domestically.
“This is a strong indication that the drones shot down in Ukraine and using parts made by Western countries don't belong to Iran," it said, according to Reuters.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February 2022, the United States and more than 30 other countries have sought to degrade Russia’s military and defense industrial base by restricting its access to defense needs.
With reporting by Reuters
Iranian Film Director Panahi 'Temporarily ' Released From Prison, Wife Says
Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been temporarily released from prison days after going on a hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
"Today, on the third day of Jafar Panahi's hunger strike; Mr. Panahi was temporarily released from Evin prison with the efforts of his family, respected lawyers, and representatives of the cinema," a statement on Panahi's wife's Instagram page said on February 3.
The post added that further details would follow from Panahi's legal team.
She gave no further details, but a photo of the couple in a car was attached to the post.
The U.S.-based US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) also said on Twitter that Panahi had been released.
Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.
Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.
Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.
Several high-profile actresses have taken pictures without a head scarf in defiant support of the protesters, whose demonstrations pose one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since the revolution in 1979.
Panahi was awarded the Special Jury prize at the Venice International Film Festival in September for his latest film, released while he was in prison, No Bears.
The filmmaker has won a number of international awards for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for Taxi in 2015 and best screenplay at Cannes for his film Three Faces in 2018.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups.
Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Ukraine's Security Service Exposes 'Large-Scale' Embezzlement Scheme
Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) says it has uncovered a large-scale embezzlement scheme to siphon off public funds earmarked for the purchase of food for the military as it battles to repel Moscow's nearly yearlong invasion.
The SBU said in a statement posted on Telegram on February 3 that as a result of the fraud, the Defense Ministry incurred losses of more than 119.5 million hryvnyas ($3.24 million).
The findings are part of a scandal that broke on January 22 when allegations surfaced in local media that the ministry was overpaying suppliers for food for troops. The supplier has said a technical mistake was to blame and no extra money had actually changed hands. The ministry said the accusations were baseless.
Eradicating endemic corruption is one of the chief requirements presented by the European Union to Kyiv as Ukraine is pressing Brussels to speed up its accession into the 27-member bloc even as it is fighting Russian troops that invaded on February 24 last year.
On the eve of a meeting between EU leaders and Ukrainian officials on February 3, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged "new steps" to continue "our fight against the internal enemy," a reference to the battle against graft. He did not give any details.
The SBU said in its statement explaining the scheme that officials from one ministry department made agreements with the heads of two commercial enterprises regarding the wholesale supply of food to locations where the military is deployed.
Funds from the ministry's budget were then transferred to the accounts of firms that "lacked a production base and technological equipment" to provide the relevant services.
"Instead of supplying the armed forces with the agreed quantities of food products, the participants in the fraudulent mechanism diverted the funds through a number of affiliated shadow companies," the statement said.
The SBU added that, based on evidence found, two heads of companies involved in the fraudulent scheme were notified of being suspected of "[illegal] appropriation, waste of property, or possession of [such property] through abuse of an official position."
It noted that SBU agents are still conducting an investigation to establish the involvement of Defense Ministry officials in any illegal activities.
"In addition, SBU officers exposed the commander of a military unit in the Kyiv region who embezzled almost 2.4 million hryvnyas ($68,000) allocated for military personnel's food," the statement said, adding that the commander had as accomplices four of his subordinates and businessmen who concealed the "kickbacks" through falsified documentation.
No names were given in the statement, which comes after a number of senior Ukrainian officials resigned or were fired beginning on January 24 as Zelenskiy vowed to eradicate corruption from his administration amid a high-profile graft scandal.
Ukraine Unveils Criminal Case Against Russia's Wagner Boss
Ukraine has unveiled a criminal case against the boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary company and promised to track down and prosecute the company's fighters who try to flee abroad. Wagner, run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has recruited thousands of fighters, including convicts from Russian prisons, to wage war in Ukraine. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has served a notice of suspicion to the head of the private military company Wagner," Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said in a statement on Facebook that did not identify Prigozhin by name. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iranian Protesters Burn Government Propaganda Banners
Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a continued show of defiance amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms with chants from windows and rooftops of "Death to the dictator," a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Similar scenes were repeated in other neighborhoods of Tehran, as well as in other areas of the country.
Several videos published on social networks showed people setting fire to the government's propaganda banners for the 44th anniversary of the revolution that brought Iran's clerical rulers to power. The anniversary falls on February 11.
The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
Officials, who have blamed 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
Germany Confirms Approval Of Leopard 1 Tank Deliveries To Ukraine
Germany has approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine from industry stocks, a government spokesperson said on February 3 at a regular news conference in Berlin. The spokesperson declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported. The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week, but could be delivered sooner. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Emaciated Iranian Activist Meysami Vows To Continue Hunger Strike
Farhad Meysami has vowed to continue his hunger strike until Iranian authorities stop executing protesters, release six political prisoners, and stop their harassment of women over the compulsory hijab rule despite photos on social media showing him in an emaciated condition amid growing fears over his state of health.
"I still stand by my three demands," Meysami, a doctor, said in a letter published on February 2 along with the photos that show him looking frail and sickly.
Meysami has been in prison since August 2018 after being sentenced to six years for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and bodies in public.
He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the system" and "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security," as well as for "insulting Islamic sanctities," because the authorities said he denigrated the hijab.
Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi has warned that Meysami’s condition is worsening and that his life is in danger.
Last month, Moghimi said Meysami's weight had dropped to 52 kilograms and that he had been beaten by guards due to his resistance to being transferred to the criminal-prisoners ward.
Many on social media, including Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran and an opposition leader, have supported Meysami and demanded his release.
On Twitter on February 3, Pahlavi said that the thin body of Meysami, "is another symbol of the boundless cruelty of the Islamic regime."
Prominent Iranian oppositionist Hamed Esmaeilion said he holds the government responsible for Meysami's condition.
Meysami has held several hunger strikes during his incarceration and in most, his demands are related to social conditions in Iran and other activists and prisoners.
In May, Meysami went on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Brussels university professor with dual Iranian-Swedish citizenship. He ended the hunger strike after 145 days.
He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.
The news comes as Iran finds itself engulfed in a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
NATO Calls On Russia To Fulfill Obligations Under Nuclear Arms-Reduction Treaty
NATO called on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the nuclear reductions treaty START, it said in a statement on February 3. "We note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally-binding obligations, including on inspection and call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Pakistan 'Will Have To Agree' To IMF Conditions For Bailout, PM Says
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said on February 3 the government would have to agree to International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout conditions that are "beyond imagination." An IMF delegation landed in Pakistan on January 31 for last-ditch talks to revive vital financial aid that has stalled for months. Pakistan's economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance-of-payments crisis as it attempts to service high levels of external debt, amid political chaos and deteriorating security.
CPJ Condemns Kyrgyz Threat To Block Media Outlet Kloop's Websites Over Article
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned a warning by Kyrgyz authorities that threatens to block the websites of investigative journalist outlet Kloop if it does not take down an article over the controversy surrounding the cost of reconstructing public facilities destroyed in border clashes with Tajikistan last year.
"Kyrgyzstan authorities' attempt to censor Kloop, one of the country's most respected news outlets, once again shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of its false information law, which should never have been enacted," said Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.
While Kyrgyzstan is known for having a vibrant and pluralistic media environment compared to its Central Asian neighbors, human rights groups have warned that the climate for free expression has deteriorated since President Sadyr Japarov first came to power in October 2020, especially with the approval of the Law on Protection from False Information, adopted in August 2021.
In late October, Kyrgyz authorities blocked the local-language websites of RFE/RL, known as Radio Azattyk, after it refused to take down a video about deadly clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
In the case of Kloop, the Ministry Of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policies objected to part of a January 20 report regarding allegations that the state Community Development and Investment Agency (ARIS) had inflated its construction costs.
On January 25, Kloop reported that ARIS denied the allegations, but the ministry sent a letter dated February 1 that demanded Kloop "immediately" remove or amend the January 25 article, as ARIS objected to the summary of its denial, the article's headline, and the mention of a government official who accused the agency of inflating its costs.
Failure to obey the demand would result in Kloop's websites being blocked for at least two months under the false-information law.
Kloop has denied the article contains any false information and has refused to take it down.
"Authorities should withdraw their threat to block Kloop's website, repeal the false information law, and cease their escalating repression of the independent press," the CPJ's Said added.
In the case of RFE/RL, the video in question was produced by Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.
Kyrgyz officials have claimed that the authors of the video "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.
In response, RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.
Days after the blocking of the RFE/RL local websites, the government froze Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities have also suspended the accreditation of 11 RFE/RL correspondents at parliament.
RFE/RL has said it is "will pursue all available legal means to preserve our operations in the country."
Dozens of media organizations, domestic and international rights groups, Kyrgyz politicians, and lawmakers have urged the government to unblock Radio Azattyk's websites.
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