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Hungary Opens Criminal Probe As Toxic Sludge Disaster Continues

Toxic red sludge swept into several Hungarian towns on October 4.
Hungary has opened a criminal probe into what sent a torrent of toxic sludge bursting from a metals plant, wreaking havoc in surrounding towns.

Four people have died, three are still missing, and hundreds had to be evacuated after the walls of a reservoir at an aluminum plant collapsed on October 4, releasing a soup of industrial waste. Hundreds of people are also suffering from chemical burns caused by the highly alkaline red sludge. A state of emergency has been declared in three western counties.

Two days after the flood, it was still unclear why the reservoir, located some 160 kilometers southwest of Budapest, failed.

"I have ordered the interior minister to start an investigation to find out who is responsible for this," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said. "We do not know of any sign which indicates that this disaster would have natural causes. And if a disaster has no natural causes, then it can be considered a disaster caused by people. Everyone in this country wants to know who is accountable for this tragedy and the property damage."

Orban said the authorities were caught off-guard by the disaster, since a plant inspection two weeks earlier had found no irregularities.

Monika Benyi, a police spokeswoman, told the AP news agency that on-the-job carelessness was a possible cause.

Local Crisis...

The four people killed by the flood were all residents of Kolontar, the town nearest to the plant. Many residents are dependent on the plant for their livelihood, and some were still reeling as scientists, government officials, and clean-up crews streamed in to deal with the damage.

"I was stuck in the sludge for 45 minutes, covered in sludge up to here, it had a strong current that it almost swept me away but I managed to hang on to a strong piece of wood from the pig sty," said one resident of the town. "I could hardly breathe because that air, that smell, that froth really hit me."

Wading through the bright red muck in rubber boots and passing the bodies of dead animals, resident Joszef Holzer said he doubted the town could make a recovery.

"I think there will be no life here anymore," he told the Reuters news agency. "It's 99 percent that there won't be life here anymore the way things look now."

Kolontar Mayor Karoly Tily declared October 6 a day of mourning.

The country's Environment Ministry said the clean-up could take as long as a year.

...International Impact?

But as the catastrophe unfolds in a quiet corner of Hungary, authorities warn it could develop into a crisis of international proportions.

On October 5, the Hungarian Water Regulation Authority estimated it would take the sludge about five days to reach the Danube, one of Europe's main waterways. South of Hungary, the Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

Emergency workers on October 6 poured 1,000 tons of plaster into the water of Hungary's Marcal River to try to bind the sludge and keep it from reaching the Danube, some 70 kilometers away. On October 7, A disaster-relief services official said the red mud had reached the Mosoni-Duna branch of the Danube River, about 10 kilometers from the river's main waterway.

Officials in Serbia and Romania had already begun monitoring water quality and the EU has urged Hungary to try to contain the spill.

Peter Weller, of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, told RFE/RL that major transboundary consequences of the spill were "unlikely." But he said that if it spread, it could eventually reach more humans through the food chain.

"Heavy metals, once they are released into a water system, are then, over time, taken up by the aquatic plants that are then eaten by the fish, and then the materials build up in the food chain and do then have toxic consequences or health consequences for fish or potentially humans, who are eating them," he said. "That could happen."

Marton Vay, of Greenpeace Hungary, told RFE/RL the seepage of toxins deep underground was the primary worry.

"The most serious part is not the rivers, because they will get fresh water from the upper part. But around these four villages, we will need to treat the soil, and now it has washed toward the drinking water basin underground," Vay said. "We don't know when it will reach and we don't know if will be possible to treat the soil, because the pollution will be in it very, very deep."

He added that Hungary didn't have the resources to deal with the unprecedented emergency.

One volunteer worker in the town of Kolontar told the AFP news agency that the situation on the ground was one of "chaos."

Vay also pointed out that the ecological and public health nightmare caused by the sludge will not end when it dries.

"The dust would have chrome, arsenic, lead, and as far as I know, mercury. And the wind could spread it over a very big region and people would breathe it," he said. "Nobody knows what this will mean."

with agency reporting

All Of The Latest News

Russia Pressing Men In Occupied Areas Of Ukraine Into Fight Against Ukrainian Forces

Sergei Aksyonov (file photo)

Reports say Russia has already begun rounding up men in occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine to compel them to fight their countrymen seven months into the Russian invasion in a widely anticipated move that Kyiv has warned is a breach of international law.

The Geneva Conventions forbid occupation forces from compelling the local population to enlist in the occupier's armed forces.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service quoted the Moscow-installed leader of annexed Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, as saying on September 25 that his authorities had already delivered 1,200 troops to mainland Ukraine in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's partial-mobilization order on September 21.

Aksyonov said on September 25 that "Crimea will finish the mobilization measures today by the end of the day, carrying them out in full," according to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

He had previously said mobilized Crimeans would be sent to Sevastopol "for retraining."

But on September 25, Aksyonov said 1,200 "volunteers" had been sent to mainland Ukraine and two more "battalions" were being prepared.

There are concerns that, as in parts of Russia, Moscow-backed authorities are pressing minorities and other vulnerable groups into military service.

Human rights activists said about 5,000 Crimean residents had already received summonses since Putin's call-up announcement on September 21.

Russian authorities reportedly this week forbid Crimeans from leaving the peninsula without military authorities' permission.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has vowed to fight until his country wins back "every centimeter" Russia has occupied, has said Kyiv has evidence that occupation authorities are targeting Crimeans to fight for Russia.

He has stressed that forced conscription by occupying armies of local populations contravenes international law.

Moscow incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation in 2014 but a UN vote overwhelmingly rejected that annexation and supported Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Human rights activists said about 5,000 Crimean residents have already received summonses since Putin's call-up announcement, and residents have reportedly been forbidden to leave without the Russian military's permission.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has vowed to fight until his country wins back "every centimeter" Russia has occupied, has said Kyiv has evidence that occupation authorities in Crimea are targeting people there to fight for Russia.

He has stressed that forced conscription by occupying armies of local populations contravenes international law.

Russia controls around one-fifth of Ukraine seven months into its full-scale invasion, including the Crimean Peninsula that it forcibly annexed in 2014.

But a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month has retaken thousands of square kilometers, according to Kyiv.

This week, Russia and its separatist allies in eastern Ukraine organized what Kyiv dubbed "sham" referendums on 23-27 September in four areas where they control large swaths of territory: Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the southeast.

The New York Times on September 25 quoted witnesses and Ukrainian officials as saying all men between the ages of 18 and 35 have been forbidden to leave Russia-controlled territory around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya and ordered to report for military duty.

It quoted sources as saying many young men are in hiding or trying to escape.

The Geneva Conventions also prohibit the transfer of civilians from occupied regions into its own territory, a safeguard that Russia quickly abandoned in this conflict as it vetted and forcibly moved Ukrainians from the war zone into Russian territory by the tens of thousands with the use of "filtration" centers.

Protesters In Russia's Daghestan Rally Against Military Call-Up

Protesters In Russia's Daghestan Rally Against Military Call-Up
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Hundreds came out in the North Caucasus region of Daghestan on September 25 to protest against the partial mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21 in an effort to step up the ongoing war against Ukraine. The police fired shots in the air to disperse about a 100-strong crowd blocking a road in the town of Endirei. A spontaneous protest rally took place in the local capital, Makhachkala, where hundreds of protesters, mostly women, chanted "No to war!" and some argued with police, saying it was Russia that attacked Ukraine.

Ukraine Says U.S. Decision To Provide NASAMS Air-Defense Systems 'Already Made'

NASAMS anti-aircraft missile systems are deployed during preparations ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in 2014.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that U.S. President Joe Biden's administration had already decided to provide Ukraine with sophisticated air-defense systems known as NASAMS as Kyiv fights off a seven-month-old Russian military invasion.

It is thought to be the first public acknowledgement by either side that Ukraine was being given the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System.

There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. officials of the decision, which reportedly came in late August.

"We absolutely need the United States to show leadership and give Ukraine the air-defense systems. I want to thank President Biden for a positive decision that has been already made," Zelenskiy said in the interview broadcast on September 25, as quoted by Reuters.

Ukrainian officials have reportedly been lobbying for the NASAMS.

"But believe me, it's not even nearly enough to cover the civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities, homes of Ukrainians" that have been destroyed or threatened, Zelenskiy said of the purported air-defense boost.

Zelenskiy also thanked U.S. officials for so-called high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) that have already been supplied and other systems helping Ukraine battle the largest army invasion in Europe since World War II.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Mongolia Also Reports Thousands Of Russian Men Entering Since Putin Ordered Call-Up

Mongolian border guards check vehicles arriving from Russia at the Mongolian border checkpoint of Altanbulag on September 25.

There were long lines of cars at a border crossing from Russia to Mongolia on September 25, with thousands of new arrivals to that East Asian country since a Kremlin call-up announcement threatened Russian men with conscription.

The increase in Russian traffic to Mongolia comes amid reports of similar crowding to leave Russia via land routes for Finland, Georgia, and Armenia since President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization on September 21.

Western military experts estimate that Russia has lost tens of thousands of casualties so far in its seven-month-old invasion of Ukraine.

AFP quoted the head of a checkpoint in the Mongolian town of Altanbulag as saying more than 3,000 Russians had crossed into Mongolia there in the past five days, about five out of six of them men.

"From September 21, the number of Russian citizens entering Mongolia has increased," the checkpoint commander said.

There were lines of people with Russian passports at the immigration counter.

Russians can stay 30 days visa-free in Mongolia, and may extend for another 30 days once there.

The call-up is Russia's first since World War II.

Nearly 800 people had been detained amid protests in Moscow and dozens of other cities against Putin's mobilization order by September 24, according to humanitarian group OVD-Info.

Russian media have shown police using force against demonstrators, and eyewitnesses have said the number of protesters have diminished since the first rallies.

Many young men detained during the protests have reportedly been summoned to register for military service.

Flights in Russia also filled up and ticket prices skyrocketed to places like Istanbul and other foreign destinations after the call-up was announced.

Based on reporting by AFP

Moldovan Anti-Government Protesters Set Up Tents Outside President's Residence

Shor Party protesters set up a tent in front of the presidency building on September 25.

Supporters of a fugitive businessman's pro-Russian party have led thousands in a protest outside the Moldovan president's official residence in Chisinau to complain about gas and other price hikes and press their demands for early elections.

Some of them set up around a dozen tents in front of the presidential home on September 25 in a repeat of a similar attempt a week earlier to erect an encampment outside parliament.

They shouted chants of "Down with the government!" and "Down with [President] Maia Sandu!"

The protests were organized by the Shor Party, whose wealthy populist leader Ilan Shor has been abroad since 2019 following fraud and money-laundering convictions two years earlier.

Shor's supporters accuse the government and Sandu of doing too little to combat price hikes -- including a 27 percent natural-gas hike announced on September 23 -- and other setbacks exacerbated by Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.

But the demonstrators are also demanding an end to the corruption investigations against Shor and other members of the party, which placed third in the 2021 elections behind Sandu's ruling Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) and the Bloc of Communists and Socialists.

Sandu, who was abroad last week, did not comment on the protests.

But government representatives accused "thieves" concerned about justice reform and the fight against corruption of organizing the demonstrations.

Shor was sentenced to more than seven years in prison in 2017 in connection with the loss of around $1 billion from a trio of Moldovan banks and is now wanted internationally.

Multiple Shor Party members had their parliamentary immunity withdrawn after investigations into a rash of massive thefts between 2013 and 2019 that devastated public confidence, including a lucrative airport concession and the banks case.

Shor Party deputy leader Marina Tauber was placed under house arrest on September 14 after losing her parliamentary immunity nearly two months earlier amid suspicion that she falsified a party financial report and accepted financing from a criminal group.

Moldova is among Europe's poorest states with a separatist-led territory, Transdniester, that is heavily populated by Russian speakers and has around 1,500 Russian troops still stationed at a Soviet-era facility despite Chisinau's request for their departure.

It has also faced some of the toughest fallout from Russia's seven-month-old invasion of neighboring Ukraine, including huge flows of Ukrainian refugees and concerns that Russia's military could try to occupy its territory next.

The pro-Western government in Moldova accelerated its EU bid after Russia invaded Ukraine, and was given candidate status alongside Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threatened Moldova with military retaliation if Moldovan officials "threaten the security of our troops" in Transdniester.

With reporting by dpa

Iranians Protest For 10th Night Despite 'No Leniency' Warnings

Protesters take to the streets on September 25 in Tehran to protest the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody.

Anti-government protests have erupted in Tehran and other cities for a 10th night over the death of a young Iranian woman after a reported beating at the hands of morality police, despite official warnings that an already deadly crackdown would toughen.

The simmering anger over 22-year-old Mahsa Amini's death this month has also sparked demonstrations outside Iranian embassies around the world, including in Paris, where French police used tear gas and anti-riot tactics to thwart a march by hundreds of people on Iran's diplomatic compound.

In Iran's capital, students gathered at Tehran University late on September 25 to chant slogans including "Freedom, freedom, freedom!" and "We will fight, we will die, we will take back Iran!"

They also chanted for the release of jailed students.

In the city of Ekbatan, in western Iran, where Amini is from and where much of the resulting unrest has taken place, demonstrators chanted, "Death to Basiji!" in a cry targeting the volunteer militia full of hard-liners who frequently dispense some of the harshest treatment of demonstrators.

Details of many of the protests are piecemeal, as Iranian officials have blocked Internet and other digital connections as they frequently do in areas of intense unrest.

The head of Iran's powerful judiciary earlier in the day pledged to act "without leniency" in the deadly crackdown on protests.

Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei's comments on the judiciary's official Mizan Online on September 25 followed a warning the previous day by hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi that the country must "deal decisively with those who oppose the country's security and tranquility."

Mizan Online said Mohseni-Ejei had "emphasized the need for decisive action without leniency" against the primary instigators of what he described as "riots."

An official toll said 41 people have so far died in the unrest, but rights groups and other observers suggest the number is likely higher as protests have spread to at least 80 cities and towns.

In the French capital, protesters gathered for a second day to express outrage at Amini's death and express solidarity with Iranians risking their freedom to speak out against the country's hard-line religious leadership.

The French protest began at Trocadero Square in downtown Paris but was met by police in full riot gear and police vans as it approached the Iranian Embassy a short distance away.

Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Josep Borrell, the European Union's high representative for foreign policy, hours earlier called Iran's crackdown "unjustifiable" and "unacceptable."

Officials in Tehran have blamed foreign governments and other outside elements for fomenting the protests.

Iran's Foreign Ministry said on September 25 that it summoned both the British and Norwegian ambassadors over alleged actions and comments related to the unrest.

It said the British envoy was summoned over Persian-speaking media in London's "invitation to riots" among Iranians.

Tehran summoned Oslo's envoy over what it said were "unconstructive comments" by the Norwegian parliament's Tehran-born speaker, Masud Gharahkhani.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 after she fell into a coma following her detention by Iran's morality police for an allegedly loose head covering triggered protests and rallies across Iran.

The public outrage increased after officials suggested the police did not mistreat her despite eyewitness accounts of a beating.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said that "we must wait for the final opinion of the medical examiner, which takes time."

Defiant protesters have mostly come out at night -- many of them women frustrated at decades of discrimination embodied by the harsh dress code mandating the wearing of a headscarf, or hijab, in public.

On September 23, state-organized counterdemonstrations took place in several Iranian cities, paying tribute to security forces who have moved to quell a week of protests by what media called "conspirators."

WhatsApp, Instagram, and Skype have been blocked and Internet access restricted beyond normal levels, according to web monitor NetBlocks, following older bans on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram.

Amnesty International has cited "a harrowing pattern of Iranian security forces deliberately and unlawfully firing live ammunition at protesters." It blamed Iranian security forces for shootings on one night alone, September 21, that left three children and 16 other people dead.

The group urged the international community to take "meaningful action" to force an end to the crackdown.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with President Raisi in New York on September 22 and expressed concern "about reports of peaceful protests being met with excessive use of force leading to dozens of deaths and injuries," according to a spokesman.

He called on Iran's security forces to avoid "unnecessary or disproportionate force" and appealed for "restraint to avoid further escalation."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Tehran Claims U.S. Signaled 'Will' For New Nuclear Deal; Washington Silent

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (file photo)

Iran's top diplomat says Tehran received a new signal from the United States that the "will and goodwill" exist in Washington to reach an agreement to replace the nuclear deal that fell apart after a U.S. pullout four years ago.

The official IRNA news agency quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on September 25 as saying he responded by urging the U.S. side to demonstrate "realism" so the sides could finalize a deal.

Amir-Abdollahian didn't detail how or at what level any exchange had taken place.

U.S. officials have not confirmed any exchange of messages, although diplomats are said to be working on the Iran nuclear issue during the ongoing UN General Assembly in New York.

IRNA quoted Amir-Abdollahian as saying he had met in New York with EU and other envoys whose countries are party to the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but not providing details.

After 16 months of international negotiations in Vienna and indirect talks between Tehran and Washington, the European Union last month put forward a final offer to overcome an impasse for the revival of the JCPOA from 2015.

Tehran responded publicly by saying it wanted stronger "guarantees" that the U.S. side wouldn't again abandon the deal, and Washington signaled it thought the Iranian response "takes us backwards."

The last official meeting in the EU-facilitated negotiations to replace the JCPOA took place two months ago.

Hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi -- whose country has been convulsed by deadly protests in dozens of cities since the death in custody of a young student for reportedly breaking Iran's strict Islamic dress code -- was in New York last week to deliver a speech to the UN gathering.

Vahid Jalalzadeh, who heads Iran's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and accompanied Raisi on his trip, suggested a meeting was sought via Swiss diplomats but did not take place.

Washington has not confirmed any such initiative.

The JCPOA began to collapse when former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States unilaterally in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, and Tehran has since strayed from compliance with the deal.

The head of Iran's nuclear agency, Mohammad Eslami, was quoted by state television as saying he would travel to Vienna next week for a meeting with the head of the UN's atomic agency, the IAEA.

"I will go to Austria to take part in the annual general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where I will meet with Director-General Rafael Grossi," Eslami said.

The IAEA's annual conference is scheduled for September 26-30.

With reporting by AFP

Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan Trade Accusations At UN Over Recent Border Clashes

Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin speaks at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have continued to blame each other for recent deadly clashes along their border.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 24, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin responded to a speech made earlier to the assembly by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov.

Muhriddin repeated Tajikistan's claim that Kyrgyzstan was responsible for deviating from a cease-fire worked out on September 19 to halt the clashes that broke out the week prior.

Kyrgyzstan has said it is fully complying with the agreement.

Muhriddin accused Kyrgyzstan of creating a false appearance of withdrawing its troops and military equipment from the conflict zone and of hiding them in populated areas near its border with Tajikistan.

Muhriddin said that "the responsibility for any next round of tension on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border will lie exclusively with Kyrgyzstan," while also saying his country was willing "to continue negotiations toward building together an atmosphere of peace."

The comments came after Japarov told the General Assembly on September 20 that Tajikistan had violated agreements worked out by former Soviet republics calling for them to respect each other's territorial integrity.

He said that Tajikistan had launched an unprovoked attack on his country in April 2021 and again on September 14 of this year.

Japarov said he was prepared to "spend as much time as possible to resolve" the border dispute.

The latest fighting over the unresolved Tajik-Kyrgyz border has resulted in the deaths of at least 100 people.

Kyrgyz officials say 59 citizens died in the recent clashes and 183 people were injured.

Tajikistan has put its death toll at 41, but correspondents of RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported a higher number after talking to relatives and friends of the people killed during the clashes. They concluded that 59 people, including 31 civilians, lost their lives and compiled a list of those killed.

Many border areas in Central Asia have been disputed since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

Life Along The Kyrgyz-Tajik Border
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The situation is particularly complicated near the numerous exclaves in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan meet.

Almost half of the 970-kilometer Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated, leading to repeated tensions since the two countries gained independence more than three decades ago.


Russian Crackdown On Anti-Mobilization Protests Continues; Nearly 800 Detained

Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against the mobilization in Moscow on September 24.

Nearly 800 people have been detained in Russia as protests against the country's partial military mobilization continue in cities across the country.

As of September 25, at least 796 people had been detained in 33 cities, with almost half of the total reported in the capital, Moscow, according to OVD-Info.

The human rights group, which monitors political arrests and detentions in Russia, said that some of those detained in the crackdown on dissent following this week's military call-up were minors.

But reports of crackdowns on anti-mobilization protests including in the capital of the southern Russian region of Daghestan, suggest the arrest numbers are continuing to rise.

The demonstrations erupted within hours after President Vladimir Putin on September 21 announced the partial military mobilization, which is intended to buttress Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine.

Russian police have been mobilized in cities where protests were called for by the opposition group Vesna and supporters of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

Images on Russian media have shown scenes of police using force against demonstrators, and eyewitnesses have said that the number of protesters have diminished since the first rallies. Many young men detained during the protests have reportedly been summoned to register for military service.

In Makhachkala, the Daghestani capital, on September 25, police dispersed an unknown number of protesters after a gathering formed to express anger over the call-up, according to Caucasus.Realities.

WATCH: A spontaneous protest rally took place in the local capital, Makhachkala, where hundreds of protesters, mostly women, chanted "No to war!"

Protesters In Russia's Daghestan Rally Against Military Call-Up
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In one of multiple videos shared on Telegram capturing the confrontation, a police officer is shown beating a protester as two other officers hold the man down.

In Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia occupied and annexed in 2014, the Russian-installed leadership said their mobilization would be complete by the end of the day, a claim that could increase fears of forced mobilization, particularly of minority Crimean Tatars under occupation.

The call-up came as Russian forces suffered significant losses of occupied territories in Ukraine's east owing to a counteroffensive launched by the Ukrainian military.

Putin followed up on his mobilization order on September 24 by imposing harsher penalties against Russians who willingly surrendered to Ukrainian forces or refused orders to mobilize.

Russian officials have said that up to 300,000 reserve forces will be called up and that only those with relevant combat and service experience will be drafted to fight.

However, Russian media reports have surfaced that men who have never been in the military or who are past draft age are being called up, and foreign media have reported that the real goal is to mobilize more than 1 million soldiers, which the Kremlin denies.

Western officials say that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties, accounting for both deaths and injuries, since it launched its unprovoked war in Ukraine in February.

The mobilization to replenish those losses has seen men across Russia sent to register, reports of Russian citizens attempting to flee the country, and even rare complaints by pro-Kremlin voices.

Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the state-backed media outlet RT, wrote on her Telegram channel on September 24 that while it had been announced that only people up to the age of 35 would be recruited, "summonses are going to 40-year-olds."

"They're infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite," Simonyan said of the authorities behind the draft.

The same day, the head of the president's Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, called on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to put a halt to the manner with which many draft boards in the country were proceeding.

On September 25, two of Russia's most senior lawmakers weighed in on the growing controversy.

In a Telegram post, Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, said that she was aware of reports that men who should be ineligible for the draft are being called up.

"Such excesses are absolutely unacceptable. And, I consider it absolutely right that they are triggering a sharp reaction in society," she wrote.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, wrote in a separate post that "complaints are being received."

"If a mistake is made, it is necessary to correct it," he said. "Authorities at every level should understand their responsibilities."


Russia, Ukraine Trade Accusations Of Shelling In Southern Ukraine Amid Sham Referendums In Occupied Territories

People from Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions vote at a temporary accommodation facility in Novocherkassk, Russia, on September 24.

Russia and Ukraine have traded accusations of shelling in southern Ukraine as four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Russian forces continued to vote in so-called referendums on joining the Russian Federation

Ukraine's military said early on September 25 that dozens of missile attacks and air strikes had been launched against military and civilian targets in Ukraine's south, including 35 "settlements," over the previous 24 hours.

The same day, Russian-backed officials in the southern city of Kherson said that two people had been killed in a missile strike on a hotel the same day.

Authorities in the city of Alchevsk in the eastern Luhansk region, meanwhile, announced that voting in the mostly Russian-occupied territory could take place in bomb shelters.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The reports came as the referendums, which have been dismissed as a sham by Ukraine, the West, and the United Nations because they are illegal under international law, entered their third day on September 25.

The voting is taking place in Russian-held areas of Ukraine's Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions.

The voting is widely seen as a way for Moscow to justify the formal annexation of the areas under Russian occupation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week announced a partial military mobilization that could send hundreds of thousands of fresh troops into the war against Ukraine that was launched by Moscow in February.

The call-up came after Russian forces suffered major territorial losses in Ukraine's east as Kyiv launched a major counteroffensive.

Putin has also announced harsher penalties for Russians who dodge the draft or who willingly surrender to Ukrainian forces, making such actions punishable by 10 years in prison.

Ukrainian officials have said that people in Russian-occupied territories have been banned from leaving until the voting finishes on September 27, and that armed groups were entering homes to force people to vote.

Residents of the southern Kherson region told RFE/RL's News Of Azov project reported that people were being offered monetary compensation for a "yes" vote on joining the Russian Federation. Those who agree and fill out a ballot are then given 40,000 rubles (about $690).

RFE/RL was not able to independently verify the claims.

There are no independent observers monitoring the polls, and many of the inhabitants who lived in areas of Ukraine occupied after Russia's unprovoked invasion seven months ago have fled.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on September 24 that regions of Ukraine where the votes are being held would be under Russia's "full protection" if they were annexed by Moscow.

Russia's state-run TASS news agency has reported that the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, could debate legislation to annex the four Ukrainian regions as early as September 29.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Ukrainian President Calls On Russians To Surrender, Dodge Military Draft

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has provided guarantees to Russian soldiers who surrender to Ukrainian forces and called on Russians to dodge their country's recent partial military mobilization.

Speaking in a September 24 address in which he switched to the Russian language, Zelenskiy offered guarantees to Russians who are taken prisoner while fighting in Ukraine and referred to newly enacted penalties in Russia against deserters or those who dodge the draft.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"Ukraine guarantees every Russian soldier who surrenders three things. First, you will be treated in a civilized manner, in accordance with all conventions. Second, no one will know the circumstances of your surrender, no one in Russia will know that your surrender was voluntary. And third, if you are afraid to return to Russia and do not want an exchange, we will find a way to ensure this as well," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy's comments directly addressed Moscow's recent partial mobilization, which is intended to buttress Russian forces who have been fighting in Ukraine since Moscow's unprovoked invasion in February and who have recently suffered military setbacks in Ukraine's east due to a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

"It is better not to take a conscription letter than to die in a foreign land as a war criminal," Zelenskiy said. "It is better to run away from criminal mobilization than to be crippled and then bear responsibility in the court for participating in the war of aggression."

Zelenskiy condemned the mobilization effort, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21, as a "crime," and said that Russian commanders "do not care about the lives of Russians" and just need to replenish "empty spaces left by the dead, wounded, those who fled, or the Russian soldiers who were captured."

On September 24, Putin signed amendments that toughened punishments for Russians who voluntarily surrender or who refuse to fight, making such actions punishable by 10 years in prison.

Putin also signed new regulations the same day that stipulated that foreigners serving in the Russian military for at least a year can apply for Russian citizenship without a residence permit.

Pink Floyd's Waters Cancels Poland Concerts After Ukraine War Remarks

Roger Waters speaks at a press conference in Rome in 2018.

Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters has canceled concerts planned in Poland amid anger over his stance on Russia's unprovoked war against Ukraine, Polish media reported.

An official with the Tauron Arena in Krakow, where Waters was scheduled to perform two concerts in April, said they would no longer take place.

"Roger Waters' manager decided to withdraw...without giving any reason," Lukasz Pytko from Tauron Arena Krakow said on September 24 in comments carried by Polish media outlets.

The website for Waters' This Is Not a Drill concert tour did not list the Krakow concerts previously scheduled for April 21 and 22.

City councilors in Krakow were expected to vote next week on a proposal to name Waters as a persona non grata, expressing "indignation" over the musician's stance on the war in Ukraine.

Allowing "Roger Waters, an open supporter of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, to play in Krakow...would be shameful for our city," city councilor Lukasz Wantuch said last week on social media. "Let him sing in Moscow."

Waters wrote an open letter to Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska earlier this month in which he blamed "extreme nationalists" in Ukraine for having "set your country on the path to this disastrous war."

Waters has also criticized NATO, accusing it of provoking Russia.

Based on reporting by AP

Iran Fires On Separatist Groups Based In Northern Iraq

The IRGC attacks targeted the bases of Kurdish separatist groups in the north of Iraq.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has attacked a militant group's base located in the north of neighboring Iraq, state media reported.

The official government news agency IRNA said the IRGC ground forces fired artillery from positions within Iran's West Azerbaijan Province on September 24, attacking what it described as a "terrorist group" based across the border.

The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency said the attacks targeted the bases of Kurdish separatist groups in the north of Iraq.

The IRGC attacks were in response to the support of the separatist group for the recent unrest in the country, as well as their attempt to import weapons into Iran, the report said.

Iran has faced more than a week of protests and unrest over the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after being detained by Tehran's morality police.

The protests, which started in Amini's home province of Kurdistan, have spread to dozens of cities across the country.

With reporting by AP

Russian Anti-Mobilization Protests Broken Up, Over 700 Arrested

Police gather ahead of a protest in Novosibirsk against the mobilization on September 24.

Russian police have dispersed peaceful protests against President Vladimir Putin's military mobilization order, arresting hundreds of people in more than 30 cities across the country.

Police detained more than 700 people on September 24, including over 300 in Moscow, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests in Russia. Some of those arrested were minors, it said.

The demonstrations followed protests that erupted within hours after Putin on September 21 issued the partial-mobilization order, which was designed to bolster Russia's forces in Ukraine following heavy losses during a recent Ukrainian counteroffensive.

On September 24 , police deployed in force in the cities where protests were scheduled by opposition group Vesna and supporters of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. They moved quickly to arrest demonstrators, most of them young people, before they could hold protests.

People who held individual protests were also detained.

Meanwhile, the head of the Russian president's Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, on September 24 called on Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to put a halt to the manner with which many draft boards in the country were proceeding.

Even men who had no combat experience had been given conscription orders, Fadeyev said.

Shoigu has told Russian state media that up to 300,000 could be called up, with only those with relevant combat and service experience to be mobilized. The Kremlin has denied reports by two Russian news outlets based abroad -- Nezavisimaya gazeta Europe and Meduza -- that the real target is more than 1 million.

The Kremlin's decision to mobilize forces for a war that has killed or injured as many as 80,000 of its servicemen has sparked fear and anger among parts of the Russian population.

On September 24, Putin signed amendments toughening punishment for deserters and those who refuse to fight by up to 10 years in prison, just days after ordering a partial mobilization amid recent Russian military losses in Ukraine.

Those who voluntarily go into Ukrainian captivity can expect up to 10 years in prison, according to amendments passed by parliament and the Federation Council this week and put into effect by Putin's signature.

Under the amendments, Russians of compulsory military age or reservists will face up to 10 years imprisonment if they refuse to take part in combat operations, the Kremlin said.

A separate law, also signed on September 24 , facilitates access to Russian citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the military.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

Russia Toughens Penalty For Voluntary Surrender, Refusal To Fight

Emotional Goodbyes Across Russia As Ukraine Mobilization Begins
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed amendments toughening the punishment for deserters and those who refuse to fight, just days after ordering a partial mobilization amid recent Russian military losses in Ukraine.

Those who voluntarily go into Ukrainian captivity can expect up to 10 years in prison, according to amendments passed by parliament and the Federation Council this week and put into effect by Putin's signature on September 24.

Under the amendments, Russians of compulsory military age or reservists will also face up to 10 years imprisonment if they refuse to take part in combat operations, the Kremlin said.

A separate law, also signed on September 24 , facilitates access to Russian citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the Russian military, following efforts to increase the ranks fighting in Ukraine.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Iran Will Give 'Appropriate' Response To Ukraine's Decision To Reduce Ties

An undated photograph released by the Ukrainian military's Strategic Communications Directorate shows the wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupyansk,

Iran's Foreign Ministry has said Tehran will give "an appropriate" response to Ukraine's decision to downgrade diplomatic ties over the reported supply of Iranian drones to Russia.

Spokesman Nasser Kanaani was quoted by the official government news agency IRNA on September 24 as saying that Ukraine should "refrain from being influenced by third parties who seek to destroy relations between the two countries."

Ukraine said on September 23 that it would reduce Iran's diplomatic presence in the country and withdraw accreditation of the Iranian ambassador over Tehran's decision to supply Russian forces with drones, a move President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called "a collaboration with evil."

Kanaani said Ukraine's decision was "based on unconfirmed reports and resulted from a media hype by foreign parties."

He did not directly refer to drones.

He said that Iran's foreign minister had phone conversations and meetings with his counterparts from Russia and Ukraine over the past few months to help resolve the dispute.

Iran has in the past dismissed accusations by the United States and Ukraine that it is supplying drones to Russia to use in its unprovoked war against its neighbor.

Military authorities in southern Ukraine said on September 24 they had shot down at least seven Iranian drones over the sea near the ports of Odesa and Pivdenniy.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on Twitter on September 24 that Iran was supporting Russia "by giving modern drones to (a) backward country for the murders of Ukrainians."

With reporting by Reuters and IRNA

French Lawmakers Want Inquiry Into Alleged Russian Financing Of Political Parties

The National Assembly in Paris (file photo)

Members of the French National Assembly say they have asked the president of the lower house of parliament to set up a committee to investigate alleged Russian financing of political parties.

In a letter to Yael Braun-Pivet shown to reporters on September 24, deputies said the move was prompted by a recent declassification of U.S. intelligence showing Russia had paid hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign political parties "with the aim to...influence elections."

The eight lawmakers, who belong to French President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party, also noted that Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National party is still paying off a loan granted by Russian banks.

"These facts clearly suggest a Russian will to weigh in the French public debate...they warrant the set-up of an investigation committee to establish if French political parties -- and which ones -- have benefited from Russian financing," they wrote.

The U.S. State Department said on September 13 that Russia had covertly spent more than $300 million since 2014 on efforts to influence politicians and other officials in more than two dozen countries.

The information followed a review by the U.S. intelligence community of Russia's efforts to influence other countries' politics, a senior U.S. official said.

The report does not name specific Russian targets but says Russia likely will increasingly turn to covert political financing to undermine international sanctions over its war in Ukraine.

Russia has not publicly commented on the issue.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Removed From Office

Deputy Minister of Defense Dmitry Bulgakov (file photo)

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Bulgakov has been removed from office and transferred to "another post," the Defense Ministry in Moscow said.

Bulgakov will be replaced by Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who previously held the position of head of the National Defense Control Center of Russia.

The Ukrainian military said Mizintsev led the siege of the Ukrainian Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, which earned him the nickname "the butcher of Mariupol."

Mariupol was captured by Russia at the end of May after most of the city was turned into ruins and thousands of civilians were killed during the siege.

The Russian military leadership under Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has recently been criticized in circles close to the Kremlin.

Some two weeks ago, Moscow's army had hastily withdrawn from the eastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, under pressure from Ukrainian counteroffensives.

With reporting by dpa

Iran's President Says Protesters Should Be Confronted 'Decisively

Iranians protest in the center of Tehran on September 23.

President Ebrahim Raisi has said that Iran must "deal decisively with those who oppose the country's security and tranquility," state media reported as the number of people killed in more than a week of anti-government protests more than doubled, according to official accounts.

State media said that at least 35 people have been killed in more than a week of protests in Iran that were sparked by the death of a young woman arrested by the morality police for failing to properly wear a mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

"The number of people who died in recent riots in the country has risen to 35 people," the Borna news agency, which is affiliated with Iran's Sports Ministry, said late on September 23, citing state television.

The official toll had previously stood at 17 dead, including five members of the security forces.

Raisi's comments were made in a condolence telephone call to the family of a security agent stabbed to death last week, allegedy by protesters.

Amnesty International said in a statement on September 23 that it had gathered evidence pointing to "a harrowing pattern of Iranian security forces deliberately and unlawfully firing live ammunition at protesters."

The statement said that on the night of 21 September alone, shootings by security forces left at least 19 people dead, including at least three children.

The London-based rights group called on the world community to take "meaningful action" against the crackdown in Iran while warning about the risk of further bloodshed amid severe Internet restrictions.

Sweeping arrests have been reported, with the police chief in the northwestern Guilan Province announcing on September 24 "the arrest of 739 rioters, including 60 women" in his region alone, according to the Tasnim news agency.

Security forces have also arrested activists and journalists, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reporting 17 journalists and columnists have been detained since last week.

They include Niloufar Hamedi of the reformist newspaper Shargh, who reported from the hospital where Amini died.

The government has also imposed Internet restrictions.

Web monitor NetBlocks reported on September 24 that Skype was now restricted in Iran, as part of a crackdown on communications that has already targeted the last accessible international platforms: Instagram, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn.

Demonstrators have taken to the streets of major cities across Iran, including Tehran, for eight straight nights since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

The Kurdish woman was pronounced dead three days after the morality police, a unit responsible for enforcing Iran's strict dress code for women, arrested her in Tehran for wearing the headscarf in an "improper" way.

Protests were reported on September 24 in Tehran, Isfahan, and several other cities.

On September 23, state-organized counterdemonstrations took place in several Iranian cities, paying tribute to security forces who have moved to quell a week of protests by what media called "conspirators."

The state-sponsored rallies came amid the strongest warning yet from the authorities when the army told Iranians it would confront "the enemies" behind the unrest.

Iran's military said on September 23 it would "confront the enemies' various plots in order to ensure security and peace for the people who are being unjustly assaulted."

"We will not allow enemies to use the situation," a military statement said, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Iran's intelligence service said it had foiled several bomb attacks during the protests.

According to an intelligence report published by the Mehr news agency on September 24, the attacks were planned by supporters of the former monarchy and militia members in the city of Tabriz in the northwest of the country.

The account could not be independently verified.

Activists said Amini suffered a blow to the head while in custody but Iranian authorities, who say they have opened an investigation, denied she had been beaten.

"Reports from oversight bodies were received, witnesses were interviewed, videos were reviewed, forensic opinions were obtained and it was found that there had been no beating," Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted as saying by Iranian media on September 23.

The minister indicated said the government was investigating the cause of Amini's death, adding, "we must wait for the final opinion of the medical examiner, which takes time."

Vahidi criticized "those who took irresponsible positions...incited violence and followed the United States, European countries, and anti-revolutionary groups."

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Russia Struck Dam On Siverskiy Donets River, British Intelligence Says

Ukrainian paratroopers cross a pontoon bridge across the Siverskiy Donets River in the recently retaken area of Izyum.

Russia struck the Pechenihy dam on the Siverskiy Donets River in northeast Ukraine this week using short-range ballistic missiles or similar weapons, the British Ministry of Defense has said.

The attack on September 21-22 followed an earlier one on the Karachunivske dam near Kryviy Rih in central Ukraine on September 15, the ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on September 24, adding that Ukrainian forces were advancing further downstream along both rivers.

Russian commanders may be attempting to strike sluice gates of the dams in order to flood Ukrainian military crossing points, the bulletin said.

The attacks are unlikely to have caused significant disruption to Ukrainian operations due to distance between damaged dams and combat zones, it said.

With reporting by Reuters

Belarus's Fate Intertwined With Ukraine's, Opposition Leader Says

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says neither country wants to be part of another Russian empire. (file photo)

The leader of the Belarusian opposition says Russia views neither Belarus nor Ukraine as independent sovereign states and the two countries should fight together to safeguard their very existence.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory in disputed August 2020 presidential election that many consider she won, said in an interview with the Associated Press that "there will be no free Belarus without free Ukraine."

Lukashenka is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has backed Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Tsikhanouskaya said there will be constant security threats to Ukraine and on Belarus's western border as long as Putin is in power.

Tsikhanouskaya said neither country wants to be part of another Russian empire.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

"So Belarus is part of this problem and this problem, this crisis, has to be solved in this context," she said, adding that Lukashenka had to support Russia after its invasion because Putin backed him after the mass protests against his claim of victory in the 2020 election.

Since its invasion, Russia has used Belarus as a staging ground to send troops into Ukraine, and Moscow and Minsk have maintained close military ties.

Tsikhanouskaya said the war in Ukraine was "extremely unexpected" and some Belarusians were especially opposed to the war "against Ukrainians, our brothers and sisters."

She urged the international community to both keep up pressure against Lukashenka -- suggesting new sanctions on Belarusian exports of wood, potash and steel -- and to help Belarusian civil society, including human rights defenders.

There are now six packages of sanctions, pushed for by the opposition, against the Lukashenka regime.

"People are scared, of course," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We live like in a gulag actually in Belarus, but people have this energy to continue."

With reporting by AP

Vote On Annexation In Russian-Occupied Parts Of Ukraine Held For Second Day

A rally and concert is held on September 23 in support of the Russian-organized referendums in the occupied areas of Ukraine in Sevastopol, Crimea, where Moscow staged a similar vote in 2014 following its seizure of the region by force from Ukraine.

A second day of so-called referendums on joining the Russian Federation has been held in four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Moscow -- votes dismissed as a sham by Ukraine, the West, and the United Nations because they are illegal under international law.

The vote in Russian-controlled areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions is being held in the midst of the largest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II runs counter to the UN Charter and takes place amid claims by some local officials that voters were being threatened and intimidated.

There are no independent observers, and many of the prewar inhabitants have fled. The four regions represent around 15 percent of Ukraine, or an area the size of Hungary.

The Ukrainian military General Staff said on September 24 that "employees of the 'election commissions,' accompanied by armed servicemen of the military of the Russian federation" were collecting signatures of local residents directly at their homes.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged the world to condemn "pseudo-referendums" meant to annex Ukrainian lands.

"The world will react absolutely justly to pseudo-referendums -- they will be unequivocally condemned," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address to the nation on September 23.

In the Ukrainian capital, about 100 people from the Russia-occupied city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donetsk region, gathered to protest the referendum, covering themselves in Ukrainian flags and carrying posters "Mariupol is Ukraine.”

In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden harshly condemned the move and warned that more sanctions will follow for Moscow.

"Russia's referenda are a sham -- a false pretext to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law," Biden said on September 23.

"We will work with our allies and partners to impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia," he added in a statement.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the United States was prepared to level additional economic penalties on Russia, in lockstep with allies, if Moscow attempted to annex more Ukrainian territory.

The vote hastily announced this week as Russia decreed a partial mobilization came as Ukrainian forces said they were clawing back territory from Moscow-backed separatists in the very territories Russia wants to annex.

Ukrainian officials said people were forbidden from leaving some occupied areas until the five-day vote was over.

Polling stations will only operate on the fifth day, September 27, with officials citing security reasons.

The Ukrainian General Staff said in a Facebook post that on the ground, Russia "has not stopped striking the civilian infrastructure and the homes of civilians."

It added that, during the night, the city of Mykolayiv was subjected to rocket fire from Russian occupiers, but information on civilian casualties was not initially available.

Ukraine's presidential office said on September 24 that the latest Russian shelling had killed at least three people and wounded 19. Oleksandr Starukh, the governor of the Zaporizhzhya region, said a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the city of Zaporizhzhya, killing one person and injuring seven others.

Serhiy Hayday, Ukraine's regional governor in Luhansk, said in a post on Telegram that Russian authorities banned people from leaving for several days to ensure votes.

"We have reports from people that the so-called 'voting commissions' coming to residences to record votes are accompanied by people with weapons.... If the doors to the apartments are not opened, they threaten to break them down," he said, adding that anyone voting "No" was written down in a ledger by the commissioners.

In Kherson, Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian deputy in the regional council, told RFE/RL on September 23 that the polling stations opened by the Russian-appointed officials in the region had remained mostly empty, prompting them to start going house-to-house to collect votes "at gunpoint."

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The referendums have been condemned as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to illegal annexation.

The move comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization on September 21 amid apparent heavy personnel losses in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that Moscow started in February.

Zelenskiy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting "this farce" and called on residents to try to avoid Moscow's mobilization.

"Hide from the Russian mobilization by any means," Zelenskiy said. "Avoid conscription letters. Try to get to the free territory of Ukraine."

The mobilization announcement has triggered an exodus of able Russian men scrambling to leave the country to avoid being drafted, with traffic at frontier crossings with Finland and Georgia surging and prices for air tickets from Moscow sky-rocketing.

The Kremlin has also shown little desire to mask its true goal over the balloting, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters in Moscow on September 23 that he was "convinced" Russia will proceed "quite quickly" with taking over the regions if the vote is successful.

The incorporation of the four areas would allow Moscow to portray any moves to retake them as an attack on Russia itself -- potentially using that to justify even a nuclear response.

Ukraine says it will never accept Russian territorial takeovers while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will ramp up its help for Kyiv in response to the "sham" referendum.

The Group of Seven industrialized economies on September 23 condemned the referendums as a "sham" with "no legal effect or legitimacy."

"We will never recognize these referenda, which appear to be a step toward Russian annexation, and we will never recognize a purported annexation if it occurs," the G7 leaders said in a statement.

Moscow has deported about 1.6 million Ukrainians from those regions to Russia, according to Western estimates, while also busing Russian citizens into Ukrainian territory.

It has also seized the personal and biometric data of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens at so-called "filtration camps," opening the door, experts say, to ballot manipulation.

Nikolai Bulayev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said he expected "hundreds of thousands" of Ukrainians currently in Russia to take part in the referendum.

Russia has little history of holding free and fair elections, with ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, outright fraud, and media manipulation common practices. It held a similar illegal vote in 2014 after occupying Ukraine's Crimea region. Very few countries have accepted the results of the vote.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Ukraine Strips Iranian Ambassador Of Accreditation After Accusing Tehran Of Supplying Drones To Russia

Part of an unmanned aerial vehicle, described by the Ukrainian military leadership as an Iranian suicide drone, which was shot down near the city of Kupyansk in Ukraine's Kharkiv Oblast earlier this month.

Kyiv says that it has stripped the Iranian ambassador of his accreditation and decided to reduce Iran's diplomatic presence in Ukraine to protest drone deliveries to Russia.

"Supplying Russia with weapons to wage war against Ukraine is an unfriendly act that deals a serious blow to relations between Ukraine and Iran," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on September 23.

"In response to such an unfriendly act the Ukrainian side has decided to deprive the ambassador of Iran of his accreditation and also to significantly reduce the number of diplomatic staff" at the Iranian Embassy in Kyiv, it added.

Earlier on September 23, Kyiv said that one civilian was killed during a Russian attack with drones on the southern port city of Odesa and that one Iranian-designed unmanned vehicle was shot down by Ukrainian forces.

There was no immediate reaction from Tehran.

Iran has in the past dismissed accusations by the United States and Ukraine that it is supplying drones to Russia to use in its unprovoked war against its neighbor.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Former Russian Federation Council Member Rauf Arashukov Found Guilty Of Organizing Two Murders

Former Russian lawmaker Rauf Arashukov (file photo)

A jury in a high-profile trial in Russia has found a former member of the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, guilty of organizing two murders.

The jury at the Moscow City Court said on September 23 that Rauf Arashukov was guilty of organizing the 2010 murders of Fral Shebzukhov, an adviser to the leader of the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, and Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of a youth movement in the mostly Muslim region.

The jury also found Arashukov's father, Raul Arashukov, guilty of ordering the two killings. Raul Arashukov was a lawmaker in Karachai-Cherkessia and an adviser to the chief executive of a Gazprom subsidiary.

Rauf Arashukov, 36, was detained in late January 2019 at a dramatic session of the upper house, after fellow lawmakers voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.

The younger Arashukov, who could be sentenced to life in prison following the guilty verdict, was also charged with participation in a "criminal community" and witness-tampering.

He represented Karachai-Cherkessia in the Federation Council. His membership in the regional branch of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party was suspended after his arrest.

His 62-year-old father was also arrested at the time along with several other people, including Rauf Arashukov's cousin.

Both Rauf and Raul Arashukov pleaded not guilty. The former lawmaker has insisted that the case against him and his father is politically motivated.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax

UN Chief Raised Human Rights Issues With Iranian President, Spokesman Says

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in New York on September 22 and raised human rights issues, a UN spokesman said.

The UN is concerned "about reports of peaceful protests being met with excessive use of force leading to dozens of deaths and injuries," spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters on September 23.

"We call on the security forces to refrain from using unnecessary or disproportionate force and appeal to all to exercise restraint to avoid further escalation," Dujarric said.

The call came amid protests in dozens of cities over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, following her arrest by the morality police in Tehran.

Based on reporting by Reuters

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