House Panel Denies Aid To Afghanistan
The State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee said the $4 billion will be withheld until the U.S. government's audit office conducts a review of how aid money is spent in Afghanistan.
Chairwoman Nita Lowey said, "I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists."
She said she had written to the federal auditors of the Government Accountability Office asking them to audit all U.S. aid to Afghanistan from the last three years.
The block of funding will not affect U.S. military or humanitarian aid spending in Afghanistan, but could affect infrastructure projects.
One congressman on the committee, Mark Kirk, worried the move could imperil important projects such as improvements to Kandahar's electrical system, which he said is an important step to winning over area residents to the U.S. mission.
The decision to block the $4 billion came as the same subcommittee approved Washington's larger plans to spend $53 billion in foreign aid worldwide in the upcoming budget year starting October 1.
Pressure On Kabul
The blockage of funds is the strongest expression yet of U.S. lawmakers' anger with persistent reports of rampant corruption in Afghanistan despite drives to curb it.
In the latest such report, "The Washington Post" reported on June 28 that top officials in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government "have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans" and helped "the nation's elite move millions of dollars overseas."
The same day, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that more than $3 billion -- including large amounts of U.S. aid money -- had been flown out of Afghanistan in recent years.
The U.S. lawmakers' action is likely to increase pressure upon both U.S. President Barak Obama and Karzai to reign in corruption or risk seeing mounting U.S. public anger.
The congressional action on June 30 came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to discuss corruption and other issues.
"We have watched with interest from Washington the positive steps that President Karzai and his cabinet have taken to help improve governance and enforce the rule of law,” Holder told reporters in Kabul. “We applaud President Karzai for his actions and encourage him to continue his efforts as much work remains to be done."
The U.S. administration has consistently urged Karzai to make targeting corruption and Afghanistan's drug trade the priorities of his second term, saying both have helped fuel the resurgence of the Taliban.
Karzai has equally vowed to make cracking down on corruption a priority, including by strengthening the powers of investigators.
After signing a document on March 18 giving more authority to the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption, Karzai called the move “a step forward toward fighting administration corruption, bribery, and embezzlement in Afghanistan's government system.”
“This will give more power and authority to Mr. Usmani [the anticorruption commission chief] and his administration, also more authority for justice and our judicial system. We are hopeful that this will be useful and for the benefit of the Afghan people," Karzai said.
But the latest media reports suggest that despite such anticorruption drives, there is little to show corruption is actually being curbed in Kabul.
"The Washington Post" report on June 28 quotes U.S. officials as saying privately that "above a certain level, people are being very well protected."
The newspaper quotes the unnamed U.S. officials as saying "Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest, and disregard evidence."
Afghan officials say they should not bear full responsibility for corruption in their country.
Afghan Finance Minister Hazrate Omar Zakhilwal told Radio Free Afghanistan that “the international donors have the right to criticize us about aspects of corruption and other shortcomings in government, and we are responsible for addressing their concerns. But putting the burden of every single wrongdoing on the Afghan government and considering the government responsible for all factors of corruption is obviously not acceptable."
He also said that Afghan officials have been among the first to expose corruption, including the reported outflow of billions of dollars from Afghanistan in recent years.
"Regarding the case of money flowing outside Afghanistan, this is our own finding, nobody else discovered this,” Zakhilwal said. “Some $4.2 billion flowed out of the country during the last 3 1/2 years just through Kabul International Airport. This is just the sum we discovered and we think the real sum is more than this.”
Corruption in Afghanistan is thought to not only enrich powerful officials but also to weaken ordinary Afghans' trust in the central government's legitimacy and efficiency.
At the same time, there are fears that a portion of the aid money sent to Afghanistan is directly helping to fund the Taliban in the form of bribes and protection payments.
The "Global Post" reported late last year that "in Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country."
The news service noted that "virtually every project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents" as contractors pay the Taliban not to attack projects.
The report said that in some cases, projects are completed and the contractors are enriched only to see the projects later destroyed by the Taliban after the protection payment expires.
Mass Casualties Feared In Powerful Explosion At Nagorno-Karabakh Fuel Depot
A powerful explosion on September 25 is feared to have resulted in mass casualties at a fuel warehouse near the Stepanakert-Askeran Highway in the mostly ethnic-Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan is in the process of taking full control of after a lightening military offensive. Separatist authorities in the region said many burn victims have been taken to hospitals for treatment. Details remain scarce in the incident. Rescue teams are at the site, officials said. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.
Russian Black Sea Fleet Commander Killed In Sevastopol Attack, Kyiv Says
Ukraine's military on September 25 said the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet was killed along with 33 other naval officers in Ukraine's September 22 attack on the fleet headquarters in Russian-annexed Crimea city of Sevastopol. The statement didn't mention the commander's name, but Admiral Viktor Sokolov was appointed to the post in August 2022. It said more than 100 were injured. Russian authorities gave vastly lower casualty figures and said one person had gone missing after the attack. Some 62 Russian naval personnel were killed in a September 13 attack on a Sevastopol shipyard that also damaged a submarine and a landing craft carrier, Kyiv said. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Russia Calls Pashinian's Criticism Of Moscow Over Situation In Nagorno-Karabakh 'Unacceptable'
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on September 25 slammed remarks by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian that were critical of Moscow, saying they "include unacceptable outbursts addressed against Russia and can spark nothing but rejection" and calling them a "big mistake."
Pashinian had said in a televised address that Yerevan's involvement in "the external security systems" -- referring to Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- "are not effective" for Armenia's interests.
Pashinian and many Armenians blame Russia -- which traditionally has served as Armenia's protector in the region -- for failing to use its peacekeeping force to protect ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan’s mostly Armenian-populated breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Multiple cases of terror against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, illegal blocking of the Lachin Corridor, and Azerbaijan's September 19 attack against Nagorno-Karabakh have raised serious questions about goals and motives of the Russian Federation’s peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh," Pashinian said.
He warned that Baku and Russian peacekeepers will be fully responsible if "ethnic cleansing" follows Baku's final victory over the separatist forces in the breakaway region.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement rejected Pashinian’s remarks, calling them "an attempt to evade responsibility for failures in domestic and foreign policies" and blaming Armenian leadership of "steps to give Armenia's development a new, Western direction."
"The leadership in Yerevan is making a big mistake by deliberately trying to destroy Armenia's multifaceted and centuries-old ties with Russia, and by holding the country hostage to the geopolitical games of the West," the ministry said.
The statement also said all allegations that ongoing protests in Yerevan demanding Pashinian's resignation have links to Russia "have nothing to do with the reality."
Yerevan said on September 25 that more than 6,000 ethnic Armenians had left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia after Baku asserted control over the region last week following what Baku called "anti-terrorist measures of local character."
The military operation was halted on September 20 after Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist leadership accepted a cease-fire proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission.
Pakistani Journalist Imran Riaz Khan Released From Captivity, Reunited With Family
Pakistani journalist Imran Riaz Khan has been freed after four months of captivity and was reunited with his family, friend and fellow journalist Hamid Mir said on September 25, confirming earlier police reports. It remains unclear who had abducted Khan. Critics say security agencies had held Khan, who had publicly supported jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan (no relation). Riaz Khan was arrested at an airport in Punjab Province in May as he tried to leave Pakistan. Police say he was later released, but relatives said they were unable to find him and feared he had been abducted. Journalists are often targeted by Pakistan's security services, according to the international Committee to Protect Journalists. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, click here.
Pakistani Ex-PM Imran Khan Moved To Prison With Better Facilities, Lawyer Says
Pakistan's former prime minister, Imran Khan, was moved to a prison with better facilities near the national capital, Islamabad, after a court order, his lawyer said on September 25. His legal team and party had been pleading with several courts to issue orders for Khan to be shifted to Adyala Jail in garrison city of Rawalpindi, which they argued was more appropriate for a former premier. Khan has been detained in a low-key, colonial era prison in northwestern Attock district, that lacked facilities. The former premier has been in jail since August after being convicted on corruption charges. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Adds President Of ICC To Wanted List
The Russian Interior Ministry added the president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Piotr Hofmanski, to its wanted list for unspecified reasons on September 25. Earlier this year, the ministry added ICC judges Tomoko Akane and Rosario Salvatore Aitala, as well as ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, after they issued arrest warrants in March for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's children's commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for being responsible for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia since Moscow launched its invasion -- a war crime under international legislation. Russia retaliated by opening criminal cases against the ICC officials. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Belarusian Freelance Journalist, Wife Handed Prison Terms On Extremism Charges
A court in the city of Vitsebsk in Belarus's northeast has sentenced freelance video-journalist Vyachaslau Lazarau and his wife, Tatsyana Pytsko, to five years and three years in prison, respectively, on extremism charges as authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to clamp down on independent media and free speech.
Judge Yauhen Burunou of the Vitsebsk regional court pronounced the sentences on September 25 after finding Lazarau and Pytsko guilty of cooperating with an extremist group. The charges against the couple stemmed from their cooperation with the Poland-based Belsat television channel that was labeled as extremist and banned in the country in November 2021.
Lazarau and his wife were arrested in February. Belarusian human rights organizations have recognized the couple as political prisoners.
Also on September 25, the Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights group said a court in the western city of Brest handed 20-year-old activist Vadzim Smaleuski a two-year parole-like sentence after finding him guilty of insulting Lukashenka in an online post.
In a separate statement, Vyasna said it learned that a court in the western city of Baranavichy has sentenced activist Svyatlana Bakanava, 36, to one year in prison after finding her guilty of insulting Lukashenka on the Internet.
Many journalists, rights activists, and representatives of democratic institutions have been jailed in Belarus since the August 2020 presidential election that opposition politicians, ordinary Belarusians, and Western governments said was rigged.
Thousands have been detained during countrywide protests over the results and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.
Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.
Former Russian Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin Dies At 89
A leading ideologue of economic reforms during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the late 1980s, former Russian Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin died at the age of 89 in Moscow on September 25. Ukraine-born Yasin was an economy professor at Moscow State University before he was asked to lead a unit at the state commission on economic reforms at the Soviet government in 1989. In 1991, he joined the Scientific Industrial Union, which after the collapse of the Soviet Union turned into the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Yasin served as Russia's economy minister in 1994-97. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Satellite Imagery Points To Uptick In Activity At Russian Arctic Nuclear Testing Site
Russia has significantly increased construction at a remote Arctic island location where Soviet nuclear tests were conducted, new satellite imagery shows, suggesting Moscow may be intending to resume tests.
Annotated images obtained by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and shared with RFE/RL showed a number of new facilities and construction equipment on Novaya Zemlya, an island archipelago located in the northern Barents Sea.
The images were released as part of a report examining the uptick in construction at nuclear test sites not only in Russia, but also in the United States and China. Details of the report were published earlier by CNN.
A comparison of imagery taken in July 2021 and in June 2023, showed large trucks, shipping containers, construction cranes, and building supplies at a settlement in Novaya Zemlya called Severny, according to the analysis by the Middlebury Institute, located in Monterey, California.
The activity appears to be aimed at least two new buildings, including what will be the location's largest.
Such a pace of construction at the site has not been seen "since the end of nuclear testing in the 1990s," the institute said, and may indicate Russia plans to expand personnel there or operate it year-round.
The archipelago was used by the Soviets for years of Cold War nuclear testing, including the detonation of the most powerful device ever constructed, the Tsar Bomba, in 1961. A 2004 research paper estimated 224 nuclear detonations on the islands until 1990, when Moscow conducted its last.
Russia and the United States later announced a moratorium on all nuclear tests, and both signed the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban. However, the treaty has not come into effect, since the minimum number of countries required to ratify it has not been reached. Russia ratified the treaty in 2000; the United States has yet to do so.
Novaya Zemlya has been the focus of new, heightened attention from analysts and open-source researchers in recent years, in particular after a 2019 incident in the White Sea, where, according to U.S. officials, a nuclear-powered missile called the Burevestnik exploded accidentally, spewing radiation over long distances, including a nearby Russian city.
In the months after the blast, satellite imagery and other data -- including warnings issued to airlines about airspace closure in the Barents Sea -- suggested Russia might be seeking to move testing of the Burevestnik missile to another location on Novaya Zemlya, a site called Pankovo.
Within the past month, meanwhile, other researchers have detected new activity at the suspected Pankovo test site, along with airspace and maritime warnings. Open-source researchers Bellingcat released a new image of the site dated September 20.
Hints that Russia might be preparing to resume nuclear testing come as other nuclear powers, including the United States and China, have also signaled intentions, overtly or covertly, to do the same.
In 2019, under the administration of then-President Donald Trump, some U.S. officials reportedly pushed to resume full testing. The official U.S. policy statement on the subject -- the Nuclear Posture Review -- ultimately stated that the United States would not seek to ratify the test-ban treaty, and it would "remain ready to resume nuclear testing if necessary to meet severe technological or geopolitical challenges."
Middlebury researchers contrasted the imagery at Novaya Zemlya with imagery from a U.S. test site in Nevada, where, they said, U.S. officials have conducted mining operations to add more than 1,000 square feet of underground laboratory space. That could be an indication the United States intends to conduct new subcritical nuclear experiments -- tests that are allowed under the test-ban treaty.
China has also expanded construction in recent years at Lop Nor, a known nuclear testing site in the western Xinjiang Province, Middlebury researchers found.
"A resumption of nuclear explosive testing by the three big nuclear powers would allow all three to resume development of new nuclear weapons and accelerate the arms race among the three," they said.
Bulgaria's GERB Nominates Journalist Anton Hekimyan As Sofia Mayor Candidate
Bulgaria's center-right GERB party on September 25 nominated journalist and political novice Anton Hekimyan as its candidate for a mayoral election in the capital, Sofia, next month that pits two factions in the country's governing coalition against each other.
Speculation has been mounting in recent months over who would be tabbed as GERB’s candidate for Sofia mayor, after the current mayor -- GERB’s Yordanka Fandakova -- said she would not run for another term in the October 29 elections.
GERB leader and former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had refused to announce the name of the candidate, saying only that the decision would be “nonstandard.”
GERB has dominated the political scene in Sofia since 2005, when Borisov was elected mayor. But the party now faces a stiff challenge from entrepreneur Vassil Terziev, nominated by the parties We Continue The Change, Democratic Bulgaria, and Save Sofia.
GERB, We Continue The Change, and Democratic Bulgaria all support the current government in Bulgaria, without having signed a formal coalition agreement.
The surprise nomination of Hekimyan, who was head of the news division of the leading Bulgarian broadcaster bTV before quitting just two days ago, also has sparked questions about the party’s possible interference in editorial decisions during the time he was head of the outlet’s News, Current Affairs, and Sports division.
But the 39-year-old media personality said the question of whether he subordinated bTV’s editorial policy to GERB was “insulting.”
“Even as a question, it's insulting. Throughout my journey, I have stood firmly behind the principles of journalism,” Hekimyan said.
bTV said in a statement that it was taking the situation "very seriously,” and would ensure measures are implemented to “protect its name and reputation” during the upcoming election campaign.
bTV is a leading broadcaster in Bulgaria, owned by PPF Group, the company of Czech businessman Petr Kellner, who died in 2021.
Hekimyan was appointed head of bTV’s news division in December 2020, months after PPF Group acquired the outlet. Earlier, he had worked as TV host and reporter for bTV.
When he left his post two days before announcing he would be running for mayor of Sofia, Hekyiman said he would continue in a “different professional direction” but gave no further details.
On September 25, he said he met with Borisov last week when he received the invitation to run for mayor on the GERB ticket.
“I have received assurances that I will be able to make my own decisions. We have discussed a team, strategy, people with whom we will work together to make Sofia look even better,” he said.
Russian Theater Director Found Dead In Leningrad Region
The director of the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, has been found dead in a suburb, local media reports said on September 25. Aleksandr Nikanorov went missing on September 21. Police and volunteers have searched for him since then. The 40-year-old Nikanorov's colleagues said earlier that he left home without his phone and ID documents. Several reports said earlier that a suicide note had been found in his apartment, but that has yet to be officially confirmed. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.
Russian Animal Shelter Where Dozens Of Dead Dogs Found Investigated
Police in Russia's southwestern Astrakhan region have started a new investigation accusing a shelter of animal cruelty after dozens of mutilated dead dogs were found near and in the facility last year. In February, police launched a probe into alleged financial fraud by the shelter's owners after some 60 dogs were found dead and mutilated in December but registered as alive in the shelter's documents. The shelter, owned by the wife of former Astrakhan municipal lawmaker Andrei Nevlyudov, has received significant amounts of money from the city to catch stray dogs and provide them with medical assistance. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities click here.
Kazakh Police Hold RFE/RL Correspondent For Two Hours Without Explanation
Police in the Kazakh capital, Astana, detained RFE/RL correspondent Sania Toiken and held her at a police station for two hours without any explanation on September 25. Toiken was detained while preparing a video report from the INNOPROM.QAZAQSTAN economic exhibition attended by Prime Minister Alikhan Smaiylov and his counterparts -- Raman Halouchanka of Belarus, Akylbek Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, and Mikhail Mishustin of Russia. Police detained Toiken after two officers told her not to record the exhibition with her camera. However, no charges were filed against Toiken and no explanation for her detention was given. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Ukraine Hails Arrival Of First U.S. Abrams Tanks As Occupation Officials Claim Missile Attack On Sevastopol Repelled
Ukraine received its first shipment of U.S.-made Abrams tanks that it says will strengthen its counteroffensive against Russian troops in the east amid continued Russian attacks in the southern city of Odesa and claims by occupation authorities in the Crimean port of Sevastopol that they had repelled a fresh missile attack on the port.
“Good news from [Defense] Minister [Rustem] Umerov. Abrams are already in Ukraine and are getting ready to strengthen our brigades. I am grateful to the allies for implementing agreements on this,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a post on Telegram a week after U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed the deliveries were imminent.
The United States agreed in January to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine as the country was preparing its counteroffensive against Russian forces that launched a full-scale invasion in February 2022. In total, Washington said 31 of the battle tanks would be sent to Ukraine.
Earlier in September, the United States said it would provide Ukraine with the controversial depleted uranium ammunitions the M1 Abrams tanks use.
Ukraine has said it needs tanks to strengthen its brigades amid its counteroffensive that started in July.
Russian forces repelled an attack on the Crimean port of Sevastopol on Monday, downing one missile, the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev, said on Telegram.
Razvozhayev, citing preliminary data, said Russian air-defense units downed a missile near the Belbek military airfield.
An air-raid alert was subsequently lifted. Traffic on the main bridge linking the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, was restored.
At least one Ukrainian missile struck the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol on September 22.
Ukrainian forces have delivered crippling blows to Russian forces near Sevastopol in recent weeks.
Ukraine's military on September 25 said the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet was killed along with other 33 naval officers in Ukraine's September 22 attack on the fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, although Russia gave vastly lower casualty figures.
The claims could not independently be verified.
On September 13, some 62 Russian naval personnel were killed in an attack on a Sevastopol shipyard that also damaged a submarine and a landing craft carrier, Kyiv said.
Separate reports late on September 25 stated that Russian air defenses had shot down seven Ukrainian drones in a “massive attack” on Russia’s Belgorod region. No injuries were reported.
Ukraine’s General Staff said on September 25 it was conducting offensive actions in the direction of the embattled city of Bakhmut and the regions of Donetsk, Melitopol, Zaporizhzhya. Ukraine's military also said it had repulsed Russian attacks in the Donetsk region.
WATCH: Russia launched a major aerial attack on southern Ukraine on September 25, destroying grain storage facilities in the Black Sea port city of Odesa.
Earlier on September 25 the Ukrainian military said Russia had launched a major aerial attack on southern Ukraine overnight, hitting the port area of the southern city of Odesa, destroying grain storage facilities.
The Defense Forces of the South of Ukraine said Russia directed 19 Shahed drones and two Onyx supersonic missiles at Odesa and fired 12 Kalibr cruise missiles. The Ukrainian Air Force said the Kalibrs were launched from a ship and a submarine in the Black Sea. Only one of the Kalibr missiles was not shot down.
However, Russia “hit the port infrastructure” in Odesa, which “suffered significant damage,” the southern defense forces said, while the regional governor, Oleh Kiper, said close to 1,000 tons of grain was stored in the facilities that were hit.
He said a woman in Odesa was injured in the attack, adding that she was being treated at a local hospital.
Russia has ramped up attacks on Ukraine's grain-exporting infrastructure in the southern Odesa and Mykolayiv regions after it pulled out of a UN-brokered deal allowing safe grain shipments via the Black Sea in July.
Elsewhere in the south of Ukraine, the Kherson military administration reported that shelling had intensified. Regional Governor Oleksandr Prokudin said Russia attacked the town of Beryslav on the right bank of the Dnieper River, killing at least one person.
“The information is being clarified,” he added in a Telegram post.
Serhiy Lysak, governor of the east-central Dnipropetrovsk region, said falling debris from a downed drone caused a fire at an industrial enterprise in Kriviy Rih, Zelenskiy's hometown.
There was no immediate comment from Ukraine.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, and Reuters
Kazakh Handed Six-Year Prison Term For Fighting With Extremist Group In Syria
Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) said on September 25 that a court in the central city of Satbaev had sentenced a local man to six years in prison earlier this month for joining the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria. The man, whose identity was not disclosed, "was arrested in Syria with the assistance of foreign services in June" and transferred to Kazakhstan, the KNB statement said. Hundreds of Kazakh citizens have joined IS and other extremist groups in Syria in recent years. A total of 742 Kazakh citizens, mostly women and children, have returned to Kazakhstan via a state program since 2018. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Kosovo's President Declares Day Of Mourning After Deadly Attack
Authorities in Kosovo say the situation around a Serbian Orthodox monastery complex in the mostly Serb-populated north of the country was calm on September 25, which President Vjosa Osmani has declared a day of mourning, after a tense standoff following an assault over the weekend by a "heavily armed" group that led to the death of one police officer and three suspected assailants.
The KosovaPress news agency quoted the deputy director of the Kosovo Police for the north, Veton Elshani, as saying police searches for some of the assailants who fled the area ended late on September 24. He did not say when they would resume.
The incident occurred early on September 24 when Kosovo Police were in a standoff with some 30 attackers dressed in security- or military-like uniforms who may have ties to the Orthodox monastery complex in the village of Banjska, where the deadly encounter began around 2:30 a.m. local time, sparking vague accusations of involvement by neighboring bitter rival Serbia.
During the standoff, Kosovar police said three attackers had been killed and six people arrested, including two of the attackers and four others found to be in possession of radio communications equipment and had discovered a "significant amount" of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment.
Details remained scarce and it wasn't immediately clear how the remaining suspected assailants may have escaped or where they were heading.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, in a speech late on September 24, said he was sorry that a police officer was killed, but he blamed the Kosovar leader, saying that ethnic Serbs there "did not want to suffer [Prime Minister Albin] Kurti's terror any longer."
"I do not want to justify the murder of an [ethnic] Albanian policeman in any way, nor can I justify it. It is an act of condemnation and it is something that no one needed," the Serbian president said.
He denied that Belgrade was involved in the overnight incident and said two of those killed were from North Mitrovica, without providing their identities. He also vehemently stated that Serbia would "never" recognize the independence of Kosovo, its former province, "neither formally nor informally." He did add, however, that Belgrade was willing to talk to Pristina.
Kurti earlier told a news conference that "there are at least 30 heavily armed people, professionals, military and police, who are under the siege of our police forces and whom I invite to surrender to our security bodies."
He said Kosovar security authorities and prosecutors would scramble "to understand more about these uniforms."
"It seems that this is a well-organized action, which is why it is more dangerous, because it suggests that there are groups on the ground who are interested in causing violence and are ready to organize and find weapons that will enable them to do so," Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and former director of European affairs at the U.S. National Security Council in the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, told RFE/RL.
Serbia does not recognize the 2008 declaration of independence of its mostly ethnic Albanian former province, with many ethnic Serbs in Kosovo following suit while remaining dependent on so-called parallel structures that Pristina regards as illegal.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he "condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms the hideous attack by an armed gang against Kosovo Police officers in Banjska/Banjske" and said more innocent lives were in danger "in ongoing hostilities" around the monastery.
He said the EU's peacekeeping force, EULEX, was "on the ground" as a second security responder and was in touch with authorities and with NATO KFOR peacekeepers.
Western officials mediating talks with Serbia and Kosovo have signaled frustration since negotiations this month that also involved Serbia's Vucic failed to achieve a breakthrough on normalization.
Those talks are part of a decade-long U.S. and EU diplomatic push toward formalized relations and to repair some of the wounds from bloody internecine wars in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In May and June, Kurti ignored outside warnings and tried to forcibly install four mayors in Serb-majority northern municipalities following boycotted by-elections to fill posts vacated by protesting Serbs.
The resulting tensions erupted into violence that injured dozens of NATO KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serbian protesters.
Roads Clogged As Ethnic Armenians Flee Nagorno-Karabakh; Mass Casualties Reported In Fuel Depot Blast
Thousands of ethnic Armenians continue to clog roads leading to Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, where new reports say a powerful explosion at a fuel depot has led to more than 200 casualties, with local health officials struggling to deal with the disaster.
Separatist officials in Karabakh said the blast occurred at a fuel warehouse near the Stepanakert-Askeran Highway and that rescue crews are at the site. The cause was not yet known.
The region's rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanian, said at least 200 people who were lining up to get fuel for their trip to Armenia were hurt and that the majority were in severe or grave condition. The number of deaths was not stated.
Officials said most of the injured needed to be air-lifted to other sites where health facilities can handle the high number of casualties.
The reports come as Armenia struggles to deal with a flood of refugees fleeing Karabakh following Azerbaijan’s victory over separatist forces there.
Armenia's government said that as of 5 p.m. local time on September 25, at least 6,650 refugees had entered the country, while de facto officials inside Nagorno-Karabakh said gas stations would provide free fuel for those making the move.
Unrest mounted on the streets of Yerevan, where dozens of demonstrators were detained after they blocked streets to protest the policies of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Meanwhile, top officials from the U.S. administration arrived in Yerevan on September 25 to meet with Armenian leaders. Among the group were U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power and State Department official for the region Yuri Kim.
WATCH: Almost 5,000 people from Nagorno-Karabakh had crossed into Armenia as of midday on September 25, according to the Armenian government as it rushed to accommodate the influx of refugees.
"The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organizations and commercial traffic," USAID said in a statement.
Power delivered a letter from President Joe Biden to Pashinian expressing the support of the American people for Armenia, officials said.
According to the Armenian government, Pashinian told Power during their meeting: "You are aware that, unfortunately, the process of ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh continues. Iit is happening right now, and it is a very tragic fact."
The first of several hundred refugees from the region began arriving in Armenia on September 24, with Nagorno-Karabakh leaders saying nearly all of the estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians are likely to leave as soon as possible, saying they did not want to live under Azerbaijani control even though Baku has vowed to protect the rights of civilians there.
WATCH: Opposition supporters protested at several locations in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on September 25.
"The authorities [of Nagorno-Karabakh] will continue to stay in place and implement state administration until they fully ensure the process of transporting citizens who wish to go to Armenia," a statement by the de facto government said.
"Due to traffic jams, it is currently not possible to organize the transport of seriously and extremely seriously injured people."
As Armenia began accepting refugees, anger over the quick loss of the region last week continued to spill out in the streets of Yerevan.
Media reports quoted police as saying more than 200 demonstrators had been detained so far on September 25, with reports from RFE/RL correspondents in Yerevan saying the protests continue, with groups of people roaming the streets urging others to join them.
The unrest comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his ally, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in Azerbaijan's autonomous Naxcivan exclave -- a strip of Azerbaijani territory nestled among Armenia, Iran, and Turkey -- to discuss the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Erdogan insisted Baku’s victory in last week's offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh opened a window of opportunity for normalization of relations in the wider region. He called Azerbaijan’s actions “a source of pride” for Tukey.
Aliyev again vowed to protect the rights of Karabakh’s Armenians, even as the flood of refugees toward Armenia mounted.
Erdogan and Aliyev again discussed the idea of creating a land corridor through Armenian territory to Naxcivan, thus linking their two countries -- a plan Armenia has long rejected. The project, if put in place, would likely intensify political pressure on Pashinian from his opposition.
Pashinian has been on rocky political footing since overwhelming Azerbaijani forces retook much of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh held for decades by ethnic Armenians in a six-week war in late 2020 that led to a Russian-brokered cease-fire.
Discontent over his leadership grew after the breakaway leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh was thrashed last week by a lightning Azerbaijani offensive that led Baku to declare victory in returning its sovereignty to the territory.
Pashinian and many Armenians blame Russia -- which has traditionally served as Armenia's protector in the region -- for failing to use its peacekeeping force to protect ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Russia has tried to position as a counterweight to NATO, although as recently as this month its armed forces were conducting exercises with U.S. forces.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington on September 25 that Moscow had shown “that it cannot be relied on as a security partner" following its failure to support Armenians in Karabakh.
The Russian peacekeepers have been in place since a cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting in 2020 in which Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory and seven surrounding districts controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
With reporting by AFP
Crowd Gathers To Demand Reopening Of Russian Orthodox Church In Bulgaria
A crowd of supporters gathered on September 24 to demand the reopening of a Russian Orthodox church in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, after the government expelled the head of the church and other officials for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests. Influential Bulgaria tycoon Delyan Peevski, who has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain, appealed for the church to be reopened “immediately” and services to be restored. The action comes amid tense diplomatic relations between Russia and NATO and EU member Bulgaria since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, click here.
Iranian President Says Israeli Normalization Deals Will Fail
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in a CNN interview on September 24 that U.S.-sponsored efforts to normalize Israeli relations with Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, "will see no success." Raisi also said Iran had not said it doesn’t want inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog in the country. Israel has moved closer to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco following a U.S.-driven diplomatic initiative in 2020 that pushed for normalization. Establishing ties with Saudi Arabia would be the grand prize for Israel and change the geopolitics of the Middle East. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Polish President Promises Ukraine Help With Grain Transit Amid Dispute
Poland remains ready to help export grain from Ukraine to global markets outside of Europe despite an ongoing dispute over access to the Polish market, President Andrzej Duda said. Duda defended his government's decision to maintain a ban on the sale of Ukrainian grain in Poland. Speaking in a September 24 interview with the Polish public channel TVP1, he said radical measures were necessary to support Poland's farmers and agricultural market. But Duda said the country would do everything possible to ensure as much Ukrainian grain could be transported through Poland to reach the poorest countries in the world, where Duda said it is most needed.
Iran Demands Sweden Act Against Koran Burnings, Urges Release Of Prisoner
Iran has demanded that Sweden take action over Koran burnings before the two countries can exchange ambassadors again, and urged it to release a jailed Iranian citizen, the Foreign Ministry said on September 24. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian discussed the Koran issue with his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billstrom, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the ministry said. Sweden has seen a series of public burnings of the Islamic holy book. Stockholm has voiced condemnation but said it cannot stop acts protected under laws on free expression.
Erdogan To Meet Azerbaijani President On September 25
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan on September 25, the Turkish presidency said. The "latest developments" in Nagorno-Karabakh will be at the heart of the meeting, the presidency said in a statement. The meeting follows a lightning Azerbaijani offensive which recaptured the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. The Turkish president has repeatedly expressed his support for Azerbaijan's army this week.
Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza Arrives At Siberian Prison And Quickly Sent To Punishment Cell, Says Lawyer
Longtime Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza has arrived at a maximum-security prison in Siberia to serve a 25-year- sentence for treason and criticism of the invasion of Ukraine and was immediately placed in a punishment cell, a lawyer said. Lawyer Vadim Prokhorov quoted from a letter from Kara-Murza to lawyer Maria Eismont. He said it was unclear why the Russian-British citizen was put into a punishment cell at the IK-6 prison in Omsk. The secretive transfer from a Moscow facility to Omsk took about three weeks. U.S. lawmakers recently urged President Joe Biden's administration to designate longtime U.S. resident Kara-Murza as "wrongfully detained." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Iran Says 28 IS Extremists Arrested After Foiling Major Bombing Plot In Tehran
Authorities in the Iranian capital, Tehran, said on September 24 that they had prevented a major “terrorist network” plot to explode 30 bombs in the city and that they had arrested 28 people associated with the Islamic State (IS) extremist group. The Interior Ministry said those arrested had a history of activities in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraqi Kurdistan. It said the arrests had taken place in “recent days” and that the plan was to conduct "30 simultaneous terrorist explosions in Tehran's populated centers." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, click here.
Zelenskiy Pivots To Talk Of Postwar Rebuild, As Kherson Hit, Russians Impose Donetsk Curfew
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pivoted to postwar reconstruction after his return to Europe from North America, as Ukrainian intelligence claimed a major blow against Russia's navy in annexed Crimea. Russian officials also said a Ukrainian drone struck near Russian intelligence offices in the northern city of Kursk as Moscow's full-scale invasion reached the 19-month mark.
In Ukraine's Kherson region, Governor Oleksandr Prokudin said Russian strikes on September 24 killed two people, wounded eight, and destroyed several private homes in the town of Beryslav.
Meanwhile, in the frontline Donetsk region of Ukraine, Moscow-installed authorities imposed restrictions on occupied areas, including a weekday 11 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew, a ban on protests and rallies, and military censorship of correspondence, online communications, and telephone calls as fighting intensified in the east and south.
Following a stop in Poland, Zelenskiy said via social media on September 24 that he had met with in the United States with leading individuals from the business and finance sectors, including media mogul Michael Bloomberg.
The gatherings were part of a visit that took him to the floor of the UN General Assembly and before the UN Security Council in New York, as well as to crucial meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional leaders in Washington and to Canada.
"The American entrepreneurs and financiers confirmed their readiness to make large-scale investments in our country immediately after the end of the war and the receipt of security guarantees," Zelenskiy said via social media. "We are working for the victory and reconstruction of Ukraine."
As the unprovoked Russian invasion entered its 20th month, the Ukrainian military and an outside assessment suggested that Ukrainian forces were penetrating deeper into Russian defenses in their ongoing counteroffensive, especially in a crucial southern region.
Ukraine's General Staff said on September 24 that Russian drone and missile strikes had continued in the last 24 hours, and said its forces were engaged in offensive operations "in particular in the Verbove area of the Zaporizhzhya region" in the south.
A day earlier, analysts from the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said they had used geolocation and other information to conclude that "Ukrainian forces are deepening their penetration" in the Zaporizhzhya region.
Much of the latest focus of the three-month-old Ukrainian counteroffensive has been on Zaporizhzhya and its surroundings, which host Europe's largest nuclear plant at a facility captured by Russia in the early weeks of the invasion.
Kursk regional Governor Roman Starovoit said on Telegram that what he described as a Ukrainian drone had struck an administrative building downtown and "the roof was slightly damaged."
Reports on social media showed images of smoke rising over the city center and referred to multiple explosions, although RFE/RL could not immediately verify their authenticity.
Kursk is about 90 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. A drone strike there last month damaged a railway station and injured five people.
On September 23, Ukrainian military intelligence claimed a missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula on September 22 had targeted "a meeting of the Russian navy's leadership" and resulted in high casualties, including a group commander.
With reporting by Reuters
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