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Iran Hangs Man Accused In Kidnapping Of Belgians

Iran
Iran
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has executed four men for murder and kidnapping, including one convicted of involvement in the abduction of two Belgians in 2007 and other crimes, the official IRNA news agency reported.

They were hanged at dawn in a prison in the southeastern city of Zahedan in a volatile region close to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is notorious for frequent clashes between police and armed bandits and drug traffickers.

IRNA said their crimes also included the killing of eight security forces personnel and the kidnapping of a cleric.

The Belgians, a man and a woman, were seized in southeastern Iran in August 2007, but they were released after a few days.

An Iranian official was at the time quoted as saying they had been abducted by a bandit group, whose leader demanded that his jailed brother be freed in return for their release.

Tourists visiting the region have been advised not to travel at night. European and other tourists have been abducted there, and kidnappers held some for weeks in a bid to secure the release of detained relatives from jail.

Murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, apostasy, and drug trafficking are all punishable by death in Iran.

Amnesty International has listed Iran as the world's second-most prolific executioner in 2007, after China.

Iran says it is implementing Islamic law and rejects accusations it is violating human rights.

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Low Voter Turnout Scuttles Mayoral Recall Vote In Northern Kosovo

A polling station in Leposavic, north of Kosovo, waits for voters on April 21.
A polling station in Leposavic, north of Kosovo, waits for voters on April 21.

The Central Election Commission of Kosovo said turnout for elections on April 21 in four mostly Serbian municipalities in the north of the country fell far short of the 50 percent required to validate the results and therefore the election failed.

Only 253 people out of a combined estimated 46,000 registered voters across all four municipalities turned out, the head of the
Central Election Commission said at a press conference after polls closed.

The head of the commission said the majority of registered voters did not vote as required by law, so the necessary 50 percent was not reached, "therefore we conclude that the citizens' initiative for the removal of the mayors of Leposavic, Zubin Potok, Zvecan, and North Mitrovica municipalities has failed."

The vote took place amid a boycott by the leading Serb political grouping.

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani said the election had been an opportunity for citizens in the northern municipalities to remove the current mayors and elect new ones through a recall process, but voters "largely did not take advantage" of the opportunity.

"Unfortunately, this was primarily due to pressure from Belgrade, exerted by the Serbian List and illegal criminal structures," Osmani said on X. "Once again, Serbia has illegally interfered in the electoral process of another country. Once again, [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic has not kept his word given to international partners."

The United States appreciated the efforts made by Kosovar election officials to allow all citizens registered in the four municipalities to participate in the vote, an embassy spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL.

"We understand from international observation teams that there was extremely low voter turnout," the spokesperson said. "There is therefore no decision by the voters to recall the mayors. The mayors in place were elected, and remain in place, under Kosovo’s legal framework."

Local Government Administration Minister Elbert Krasniqi said earlier that the powerful Srpska Lista (Serbian List), which called the boycott, wants a "monopoly" on the politics of the Serbian community in Kosovo.

Northern Kosovo Holds Mayoral Votes Amid Boycott By Serbian Parties
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"They see the institutions only for themselves and not for the citizens," said Krasniqi in a statement issued in Leposavic, where he visited polling stations. "They continue to have seats reserved for the Serbian community in the Assembly of Kosovo and do not represent the interests of the citizens, but receive the salaries of the Assembly of Kosovo."

The voting is the latest irritant between Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population and tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who, along with Belgrade, reject the former Serbian province's 2008 declaration of sovereignty and Pristina's authority.

The powerful Srpska Lista (Serbian List) party that represents many Serbs has urged them to boycott the mayoral by-elections in the North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok, and Leposavic municipalities.

Pristina cleared the path to the recall votes last September amid international pressure to hold new elections after ethnic Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted voting in April 2023 to replace Serbs who quit in protest over an intensifying administrative spat between Serbia and Kosovo.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence and normalization has eluded the former Yugoslav neighbors despite over a decade of EU-mediated talks that has failed to build sufficient trust or a binding road map to ensure Serb representation and Kosovar membership of international institutions including the United Nations.

Recently, Pristina stepped up pressure on its Serb population by suddenly prohibiting use of the Serbian dinar in January despite its continued use throughout many mostly Serb areas for essential payments and pensions and other supports from Serbia.

The abrupt restriction drew criticism from Belgrade and from many of Kosovo's strongest allies, including the United States, of Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti as he continues a long-running test of wills with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

The Serbian List has criticized voter registers in the four municipalities as "outdated," and said on April 7 it would boycott the elections.

Serbian List leader Zlatan Elek alleged "unfeasible procedures" for the April 21 voting and said the number of registered ethnic Albanians on the lists of local voters "has grown" since voting a year ago. He said voter lists "do not reflect the real situation on the ground."

"The position of the Serbian List is not to participate in the referendum called by Albin Kurti, because he did everything to make it fail," Elek said.

The dispute over the mayoralties escalated after ethnic Serbs in late 2022 quit those and other official posts -- including on the police force and posts within the so-called parallel institutions that operate in Kosovo with Serbian support despite Pristina's insistence that they are illegal.

After elections to replace the mayors in the four towns, Kurti's government ignored international pleas to de-escalate the situation and sought in May 2023 to forcibly seat ethnic Albanians who'd been declared the winners despite paltry turnout reflecting the ongoing boycott.

Local resistance -- some allege with direct support from Belgrade -- erupted into violence that injured dozens of NATO peacekeepers and reminded the international community of the depth of tensions in a region only decades removed from ethnic cleansings and bitter warfare.

After the Kosovar government established a procedure for possible recall votes, Serbs were said to have collected signatures from the required one-fifth of voters in the four regions -- reportedly with the open encouragement in January of Serbian List.

EU officials expressed disappointment at the Serbian List boycott effort.

Ukrainian Navy Says It Hit Russian Salvage Ship In Sevastopol

Members of Russia's Black Sea fleet (file photo)
Members of Russia's Black Sea fleet (file photo)

Ukraine says its navy struck another ship belonging to Russia's Black Sea fleet. The Ukrainian Navy hit the Russian salvage ship Kommuna in occupied Sevastopol, Dmytro Pletenchuk, spokesman for the Ukrainian Navy, said on April 21. "The nature of the damage is being verified," Pletenchuk said on Facebook. Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014, said an attack by an "anti-ship missile" on a Russian warship had been repelled. "The falling fragments caused a small fire, which was quickly extinguished," Razvozhayev said on Telegram. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here. To read the original story by Crimea.Realities, click here.

Updated

Zelenskiy Says U.S. Breakthrough On Military Aid Gives Ukraine A 'Chance For Victory'

A self-propelled howitzer of the Ukraine's 57th Brigade fires in the direction of Russian positions on the outskirts of Kupyansk on April 21.
A self-propelled howitzer of the Ukraine's 57th Brigade fires in the direction of Russian positions on the outskirts of Kupyansk on April 21.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he sees "a chance for victory" for Ukraine over invading Russian forces after passage of a long-delayed aid bill critical to Ukraine's defense by the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I think this support will really strengthen the armed forces of Ukraine," Zelenskiy told U.S. broadcaster NBC on April 21. "And we will have a chance for victory if Ukraine really gets the weapon system, which we need so much."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Ukraine will prioritize long-range weapons and air-defense systems, which Zelenskiy said would enable Ukraine to "break the plans of Russia" to mount an expected full-scale offensive.

"This is crucial. These are the priorities now," Zelenskiy said.

Elaborating on X, formerly Twitter, Zelenskiy said the democratic world has the strength to defeat Russia and shouldn't "be afraid of its own power," referring specifically to Ukraine's need for Patriot air-defense systems and modern fighter jets.

"’Patriots can only be called air-defense systems if they work and save lives rather than standing immobile somewhere in storage bases," he said. “Modern fighter jets are required where modernity is put to the test and it is determined whether children and grandchildren of today's generations will live in peace and security."

Later in his evening address, Zelenskiy encouraged quick delivery of the aid to the front line, where ammunition shortages have led Ukrainian military commanders to ration shells.

"The time between political decisions and actual damage to the enemy on the front lines, between the package's approval and our warriors' strengthening, must be as short as possible," he said.

Ukraine and its European allies earlier welcomed the U.S. House of Representatives's passage on April 20 of the bill, which includes $61 billion in Ukrainian aid as part of a $95 billion package that also includes aid to Israel and other U.S. allies.

The Senate's Democratic leadership has pledged to vote on the entire package in the next 72 hours to get it to President Joe Biden, who urged the Senate to quickly "send this package to my desk so that I can sign it into law and we can quickly send weapons and equipment to Ukraine to meet their urgent battlefield needs."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) said overnight the Senate "is ready to take the next step on additional national security legislation." Debate is scheduled to begin on April 23.

Zelenskiy said he hoped the bill would quickly pass the Senate and be sent to Biden.

"We appreciate every sign of support for our country and its independence, people, and way of life, which Russia is attempting to bury under the rubble," Zelenskiy said on X. "America has demonstrated its leadership since the first days of this war. Exactly this type of leadership is required to maintain a rules-based international order and predictability for all nations."

Freed From Prison In The Donbas, Journalist Joins Ukrainian Forces On Front Lines
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In his evening address, Zelenskiy added that his office and Ukrainian diplomats "are actively working to ensure a positive political outcome of the swift approval" by the Senate, which originally passed the bill in February, but it must go back to the Senate for approval of changes in the legislation.

The Kremlin responded to the House vote by saying the U.S. move would cost further Ukrainian lives "because of the Kyiv regime." It suggested the U.S. support was intended to "enrich" the United States and "further ruin" Ukraine, which was already battling Russian-backed separatists after 2014 before the unprovoked full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky said there is "nothing to celebrate here." He repeated the Kremlin arguments on social media and added in English, "But the inglorious end of the Kiev [sic] regime is inevitable regardless of this new package and all the futile efforts of its U.S. and NATO backers to keep it alive."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa

Khamenei Thanks Troops After Iran, Israel Appear To Downplay Risk Of Wider Conflict

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) leads a prayer during his meeting with a group of senior military leaders in Tehran on April 21.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) leads a prayer during his meeting with a group of senior military leaders in Tehran on April 21.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly expressed gratitude to Iran's armed forces one week after they targeted Israel with more than 300 missiles and drones in response to Israel's suspected bombing of Iran's embassy compound in Damascus.

The comments follow Tehran's seemingly measured response to images from April 19 showing the fiery results of what was thought to be an Israeli retaliatory attack near the Iranian city of Isfahan.

Observers suggested the absence of more threats from Iranian officials looked like an attempt to avert a broader conflict.

"How many missiles were launched and how many of them hit their target is not the primary question. What really matters is that Iran demonstrated its willpower during that operation," Khamenei said on April 21, according to official media.

But he encouraged Iran's military to "ceaselessly pursue military innovation and learn the enemy's tactics."

April 19 marked the 85th birthday of Khamenei, who holds final say on religious and political affairs in Iran.

Iranian state media quoted officials in Tehran as saying the explosions were caused by air-defense systems that shot down three drones.

Israel has not commented on the report.

Reuters, citing three sources familiar with the matter, reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war cabinet initially approved plans for a strike inside Iranian territory to respond forcefully to Tehran's April 14 missile and drone strike but backed off at the last minute.

The Reuters report said Netanyahu faced cabinet divisions and strong warnings from allies -- including Washington -- not to escalate matters, leading to two postponements of the limited strikes that eventually were launched.

Speaking at a mosque on April 19, President Ebrahim Raisi didn't mention the attack near Isfahan.

Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in the early morning hours of April 14, almost all of which were shot down by Israeli defense systems, along with intercepts by forces from the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan.

The attack by Tehran had been widely anticipated in Israel following a suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Syria on April 1 that killed two brigadier generals.

Since then, diplomats and politicians around the world, fearing another major escalation of fighting in the Middle East, had urged restraint as they awaited Israel's response.

U.S. President Joe Biden has not made any statement about the alleged Israeli attack.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had seen no damage to Iran's nuclear sites. One of Iran’s top nuclear facilities, the installation at Natanz, is located in central Isfahan. "IAEA can confirm that there is no damage to Iran’s nuclear sites," the UN nuclear watchdog said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades, but this was the first direct attack by one on the other's soil instead of through proxy forces or by targeting each other's assets operating in third countries.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

Iranian Commander Announces New Morality Enforcement Body

Female members of Iran's morality police patrol the streets in Tehran looking for women violating the mandatory head scarf.
Female members of Iran's morality police patrol the streets in Tehran looking for women violating the mandatory head scarf.

The commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops in the Iranian capital on April 21 announced the creation of a new enforcement body to uphold the country's strict dress code for women.

IRGC Tehran chief Hassan Hassanzadeh said members of the squad's members have been trained to enforce the hijab "in a more serious manner" at public locations.

The announcement follows reports that authorities have intensified morality sweeps in recent days, with shared images showing the uniformed officers descending on women as part of an operation officials said was codenamed Nour, or Light in Persian.

In a related message imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi said women's narratives of oppression will be heard and will "disgrace" the "misogynist" government.

"Today, the authoritarian theocracy has drawn a full-fledged war against all women on all streets of the country, not out of a position of power but out of desperation," Mohammadi said from Tehran's Evin prison, according to an audio message posted on April 21 on an Instagram page attributed to her.

The message said that journalist Dina Ghalibaf, who was arrested earlier this month after she published a personal narrative about her previous detention by Iran’s morality police for not adhering to the hijab law, entered the women's ward in Evin prison "with a bruised body and a narrative of sexual harassment."

Mohammadi added that Iran for years has been witnessing "the narrative of women who have been subjected to abuse, harassment, and mayhem by government officials. We women will stop this war ...or the people of Iran and the world will rise up to our aid."

The death in custody of student Mahsa Amini in September 2022 after an alleged beating by morality police sparked massive street protests and provided momentum to the decades-long opposition to the mandatory head scarf since its imposition by religious authorities following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Those protests prompted a fierce official crackdown in which more than 500 people have died and thousands have been arrested, with some of those convicted of wrongdoing executed.

Senior Iranian officials said recently that President Ebrahim Raisi's government was behind the new dress-code crackdown, with the Interior Ministry leading the effort.

Some relative moderate lawmakers have questioned a tightening in the current circumstances, with tensions high over military confrontations in the region and Tehran seeking to project influence through allies or proxies and fears high of an escalation of violence between Iran and foe Israel.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi has defended the Nour crackdown, saying "projects implemented in the area of hijab are being carried out within the framework of the law."

Vahidi called the hijab "one of the pillars of the [Iranian] system's identity and a Shari'a principle" that "should not be allowed" to slip into lax enforcement.

Even some strongly pro-Islamic forces in Iran have objected to such rigorous hijab enforcement at the expense of internal solidarity in the face of external threats to the country.

Iran's President Raisi To Make Official Visit To Pakistan This Week

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) meets with Pakistani Ambassador to Iran Muhammad Mudassir Tipu in Tehran on January 27.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) meets with Pakistani Ambassador to Iran Muhammad Mudassir Tipu in Tehran on January 27.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will make an official visit to Pakistan on April 22-24 accompanied by his wife, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other senior Iranian officials, and a business delegation, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry announced on April 21. The visit is the first since the two Muslim neighbors exchanged missile strikes against the backdrop of the Israeli-Gazan conflict and fears of wider conflict along with threats to Red Sea commercial shipping in January. Islamabad said Raisi will meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, as well as the heads of the Senate and the National Assembly.

Iran Disputes Reports Of First Delivery Of Russian Su-35 Fighter Jets

A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet (file photo)
A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet (file photo)

Iranian officials have denied media reports about the imminent delivery of new Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to Iran. Reports in the Iranian media that the country is to receive the latest generation of aircraft in the next few days are incorrect, according to the Fararu news website. The media had referred to a report by the SNN news agency, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The agency itself denied the report on its Telegram page after consulting with the Defense Ministry, which last year announced that Iran had acquired Mi-28H combat helicopters and Yak-130s from Russia in addition to the SU-35 fighter jets.

Moldova Faces New Challenge From Restive Gagauzia Region

Residents of Moldova's pro-Moscow Gagauzia region attend a Romanian-language class.
Residents of Moldova's pro-Moscow Gagauzia region attend a Romanian-language class.

Moldova's pro-European government faces a new challenge from its restive pro-Moscow Gagauzia region after its leaders denounced proposed judicial reforms and demanded enhanced status for the Russian language. Gagauzia's 140,000 residents, mainly ethnic Turks who adhere to Orthodox Christianity, have had uneasy relations with central authorities since Moldova threw off Soviet rule in 1991. On April 19, Gagauzia's local assembly rejected judicial reforms which would shut down an appeal court in the region and called for special status for Russian, alongside Moldova's sole state language, Romanian. Under Moldova's constitution, Gagauzia's leader is automatically a member of the government.

Ukraine Says It Will Resume Small Power Exports

An exterior view of an electric power plant partially damaged in a shelling by Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in October 2022.
An exterior view of an electric power plant partially damaged in a shelling by Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in October 2022.

Ukraine plans to resume minor amounts of electricity exports on April 21, but it expects substantial power imports during peak consumption periods, the Energy Ministry said. The country sharply increased its imports of electricity and halted exports after a series of attacks on its energy system in late March and early April. "No electricity shortages or emergency assistance are planned for the current day," the ministry said in a statement. The ministry said around 139 megawatt hours (Mwh) could be exported on April 21 with imports of 8,430 Mwh.

Latest Attack On Pakistani Customs Officials Kills 3

Security officials examine damage at the site of a bombing at a police station on the outskirts of Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, on December 12, 2023.
Security officials examine damage at the site of a bombing at a police station on the outskirts of Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, on December 12, 2023.

Police in the western Pakistani city of Dera Ismail Khan say unidentified men opened fire on a vehicle carrying customs officials on April 21, killing a customs inspector and two security personnel and injuring another in the second deadly attack on customs officials in the span of four days.

No one claimed responsibility for either incident.

Police are investigating.

They identified the slain official as an inspector named Hasnain.

A month ago in the same town, a suicide attack killed two Pakistani troops traveling in a military convoy.

Then on April 18, five customs court staff and two other individuals were killed in an attack on a court vehicle in nearby Darabon Sago.

Some of the attacks plaguing the area around the Pakistani-Afghan border have been claimed by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), a radical Islamist group that has been a U.S.-designated terrorist organization since 2010.

The attacks have ratcheted up already high tensions between Islamabad and the Taliban-led Afghan government.

Zelenskiy Bans Ukrainian Troops From Gambling Online

Gambling online has been outlawed for Ukrainian troops until martial law is over. (Illustrative photo)
Gambling online has been outlawed for Ukrainian troops until martial law is over. (Illustrative photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued an immediate decree on April 20 banning members of the military from online gambling sites. It cited "the negative effects of gambling on the Internet" and said the ban would be in effect until martial law is over, per a decision by Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council. Ukrainian soldier Pavlo Petrychenko launched an online petition in March urging restrictions on online casinos, saying such gambling was damaging the army and Ukrainian society, and dangerously exposed personal data on troops. Petrychenko was killed in action on April 15, after which Zelenskiy prioritized the ban. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Navalnaya Warns Of Putin's Willingness To Strike In Europe

Yulia Navalnaya, widow of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, speaks after receiving the Media Freedom Prize at the Ludwig Erhard Summit in Gmund, Germany, on April 19.
Yulia Navalnaya, widow of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, speaks after receiving the Media Freedom Prize at the Ludwig Erhard Summit in Gmund, Germany, on April 19.

The exiled widow of the late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has said "nobody knows" what to expect from Russian President Vladimir Putin and warned that the revanchist Kremlin leader could use nuclear weapons if he felt the need.

Yulia Navalnaya, who has pledged to maintain pressure on Putin since her husband died in an Arctic prison in February, told dpa news agency in statements published on April 21 when asked if she thought he would balk at the use of nucear weapons that "we don't know what to expect from [Putin]."

"He probably would do it," she added.

Navalnaya used recent spy scandals and arrests in Germany and Poland to argue that Putin has been conducting a war in the heart of Europe for years.

"Putin did not just start," she said. "He has been doing this all along."

Navalny, 47, died on February 16 in unclear circumstances in an Arctic prison where he was serving a 19-year term on extremism and other charges widely seen as politically motivated.

His death under unclear circumstances was called a murder by Navalnaya and his supporters despite the official death certificate saying Navalny died of natural causes.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have accused Moscow of killing its most feared domestic critic, who had survived multiple poisonings that he blamed on Putin.

Investigators in Russia's Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region on April 9 extended the term of the preliminary investigation into Navalny's death until at least April 20.

Navalny began writing a memoir four years ago that will go on sale later this year in what publisher Alfred A. Knopf says is his "final letter to the world."

But Navalnaya, who lives with their children in exile, has urged the world to withdraw recognition of Putin as Russia's "legitimate" president and has vowed to continue the effort to unseat him.

Putin was declared the winner with 87 percent of the vote in an election to a fifth presidential term after officials disqualified his only serious critic and with an intensified crackdown on the media and dissent continuing with Russia on a war footing.

Citing the unpredictability of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Navalnaya said it was impossible to know where Putin might try to strike next. "He frightens people, keeps them in fear. Nobody knows what Putin is going to do next."

Three people, two Poles and a Belarusian national, were detained this month in Poland for alleged involvement in a vicious attack with a hammer in Lithuania in March on the former director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, Leonid Volkov.

Last week, two German-Russian dual nationals were detained after they were suspected of looking for possible areas for sabotage in Germany.

Polish security officials detained a suspect they accused of trying to help Russian intelligence plan an assassination attempt on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Navalnaya predicted that Russian opposition to the war would increase if, as some suspect, Putin is preparing a new wave of mobilization for the war in Ukraine.

"There are many anti-war activists and anti-Putin activists," she told dpa. "They need to hear the support from the West."

Russia Likely Lost 100 Combat Planes In Ukraine War, Says U.K.

The Russian Air Force lost one of its Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic heavy bombers on April 19.
The Russian Air Force lost one of its Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic heavy bombers on April 19.

A Russian strategic bomber aircraft was likely brought down by the Ukrainian Air Force, according to an estimate by the British Defense Ministry, "the first instance of a strategic bomber being shot down by Ukrainian air-defense systems." The ministry said in an update on April 20 that it is "highly likely that Russia has now sustained at least 100 fixed-wing combat losses to date." The Russian Air Force lost one of its Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic heavy bombers on April 19. While the Russian Defense Ministry said there had been a crash likely caused by technical problems, Ukraine claimed it was shot down

Pakistani Province Issues Flood Alert, Warns Of Heavy Loss Of Life From Glacial Melting

In mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been hit hard by the deluges, latest figures indicate 59 people, including 33 children, have died in the past five days because of rain-related incidents. 
In mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been hit hard by the deluges, latest figures indicate 59 people, including 33 children, have died in the past five days because of rain-related incidents. 

The northwest Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has issued a flood alert because of glacial melting and warned of a heavy loss of life if safety measures aren't undertaken, officials said on April 20. Pakistan has witnessed days of extreme weather, killing scores of people and destroying property and farmland. Experts say the country is experiencing heavier rains than normal in April because of climate change. In mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been hit hard by the deluges, latest figures indicate 59 people, including 33 children, have died in the past five days because of rain-related incidents.

Updated

Armenian Border Residents Protest As Yerevan, Baku Agree On Delimitation

Some residents of Voskepar -- another Armenian village affected by the planned border demarcation -- claimed, meanwhile, that what was announced by the authorities on April 19 contradicted what Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian had said when he held a closed-door meeting with residents earlier in the week.
Some residents of Voskepar -- another Armenian village affected by the planned border demarcation -- claimed, meanwhile, that what was announced by the authorities on April 19 contradicted what Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian had said when he held a closed-door meeting with residents earlier in the week.

Residents of several Armenian communities in northeastern Tavush Province began protests late on April 19 after authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan announced a border-delimitation deal under which Baku will regain control of four formerly Azeri-populated villages in the area, an agreement hailed by the United States and European Union.

Following the announced agreement, residents of the villages of Kirants and Baghanis blocked traffic at sections of the road linking their communities to the towns of Ijevan and Noyemberian, respectively.

Some residents of Voskepar -- another Armenian village affected by the planned border demarcation -- claimed, meanwhile, that what was announced by the authorities on April 19 contradicted what Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian had said when he held a closed-door meeting with residents earlier in the week. They said would gather in the village on April 20 to decide their next steps.

Armenian Border Area Residents Block Road, Decry Demarcation Deal
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Following the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian and Azerbaijani counterpart Shahin Mustafayev -- held at an undisclosed section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on April 19 -- the parties announced a preliminary agreement on border delimitation.

The initial stage will affect land areas between four villages in the territory of Armenia's Tavush Province and four abandoned villages that used to be part of Azerbaijan's Qazax district during Soviet times.

Armenia agreed to return the four abandoned border villages that it has controlled since the early 1990s to Azerbaijan as the initial step in defining the frontier between the two South Caucasus nations.

The delimitation on those sections is to be completed by the middle of May, the parties agreed.

Residents of border villages in Tavush are particularly concerned that the demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan in accordance with the Soviet-era configuration will deprive them of access to their farmlands and complicate their communications with the rest of the country due to the fact that some parts of area roads will fall under Azerbaijani control.

They also voiced concerns that Armenia's withdrawal from current military positions will make local civilians more vulnerable to Azerbaijani armed attacks.

The Armenian prime minister's office on April 19 sought to address some of the residents' concerns.

"For the first time, there will be a demarcated state border between our countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] in the section of the four villages," the office said, according to Armenia's state-run Armenpress news agency.

"Yes, as a result of this process, the border guard service of Azerbaijan will get closer to the villages of Kirants and Voskepar, but their villages and ours will be separated by a delimitated state border."

The office added that "border protection will be carried out by the border guards of the Republic of Armenia" and that further security details will be "discussed and detailed in the near future."

It stressed that the agreement was based on the 1991 Almaty Declaration -- "which is set as a fundamental principle of the border-delimitation process."

Pashinian on April 20 touted the arrangement, praising the fact that the two bitter rivals "have, for the first time, resolved an issue at a negotiating table."

The deal was hailed as another success of the government in Azerbaijan.

"Armenia has agreed to return four villages under occupation since the early 1990s," Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizada wrote on social media, describing it as a "long-awaited historic event."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington welcomed the announcement as "an important step toward concluding a durable and dignified peace agreement."

The agreement was also hailed by the European Union.

"Encouraging news today regarding the work of the Armenian and Azerbaijani border commissions and the start of a delimitation process based on legal documents and the 1991 Almaty Agreement," Toivo Klaar, the EU's Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"The EU fully supports the process of negotiations and the aim of a comprehensive and lasting settlement," he added.

Germany's Foreign Ministry said the agreement "removes a major hurdle on the way to a peace agreement. Germany remains ready to do everything in its power to support the path to lasting peace."

Bulgaria Seizes Heroin Worth Nearly $9 million In Truck Heading From Iran To Western Europe

Packages containing heroin seized during an operation are seen in Sofia in 2021. Bulgaria, which lies on a drug route from the Middle East to Western Europe, has taken steps in recent years to prevent drug trafficking.
Packages containing heroin seized during an operation are seen in Sofia in 2021. Bulgaria, which lies on a drug route from the Middle East to Western Europe, has taken steps in recent years to prevent drug trafficking.

Bulgarian customs officials say they seized 403 kilograms of heroin found in a truck with Turkish registration en route from Iran to Western Europe. The heroin was hidden inside the officially declared 156 mattresses transported in the truck. Officials valued the drug haul at 8.5 million euros (nearly $9 million). The drugs were thought to have originated in Iran and destined for EU nations, officials said. The Turkish driver was detained and could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted on drug trafficking charges. Bulgaria, which lies on a drug route from the Middle East to Western Europe, has taken steps in recent years to prevent drug trafficking.

Deadly Blast At Iraq Army Base Amid Israel-Iran Tensions

A general view shows the Kalso military base after it was hit by a huge explosion late on April 19, in Babylon Province, Iraq.
A general view shows the Kalso military base after it was hit by a huge explosion late on April 19, in Babylon Province, Iraq.

One person was killed and eight wounded in an overnight explosion at an Iraqi military base housing a coalition of pro-Iranian armed groups, officials said on April 20. The full details remain unclear hours after the blast hit the Kalsu military base in Babylon Province south of Baghdad, where regular army, police, and members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashed al-Shaabi, are stationed. It comes days after Iran launched an unprecedented assault on Israel, which reportedly responded with a drone strike on the Islamic republic on April 19, amid tensions fueled by the Gaza war.

Updated

Iran, Israel Appear To Step Back From Moves To Spark Wider Regional Conflict

Iranians walk past a mural showing the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (right) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and Basij paramilitary forces as they hold posters of Khomeini and Iranian and Palestinian flags in an anti-Israeli gathering after Friday Prayers in Tehran on April 19.
Iranians walk past a mural showing the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (right) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and Basij paramilitary forces as they hold posters of Khomeini and Iranian and Palestinian flags in an anti-Israeli gathering after Friday Prayers in Tehran on April 19.

Iran and Israel appeared to be easing off actions and rhetoric that could lead to a wider Middle East conflict after a series of apparent retaliatory attacks, the latest of which featured a suspected Israeli strike on sites near the central Iranian city of Isfahan.

Tehran on April 20 downplayed the scope and impact of the reported Israeli attack that appeared to be in retaliation for an unprecedented air attack the Islamic republic launched last weekend on its sworn enemy.

Explosions rang out early on April 19 -- the 85th birthday of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- near the central city of Isfahan with reports unclear over the cause, while several major U.S. media organizations quoted U.S. government sources as saying Israel had launched an attack on targets inside Iran.

Iranian state media quoted officials in Tehran as saying the explosions were caused by air-defense systems that shot down three drones.

Israel has not commented on the report.

Video Purportedly Shows Israeli Aerial Attack On Iran
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Reuters, citing three sources familiar with the matter, reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war cabinet initially approved plans for a strike inside Iranian territory to respond forcefully to Tehran's April 14 missile and drone strike but backed off at the last minute.

The sources said three voting members of the war cabinet ruled out the most dramatic strike: an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and other sites that would likely have provoked a wider conflict.

The Reuters report said Netanyahu faced cabinet divisions and strong warnings from allies, including Washington, not to escalate matters, leading to two postponements of the limited strikes that eventually were launched.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House in Britain, was quoted by AFP as saying the reported Israeli strike had been "calibrated to avoid damage and further Iranian aggression."

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told U.S. outlet NBC News that Tehran is investigating the incident but has not seen any indication that the attack was related to Israel.

He warned that if Israel strikes again, Iran will respond immediately and "at maximum level."

"If Israel retaliates, then we will respond. But if not, then we're done," Amir-Abdollahian told NBC News in Persian late on April 19.

He added that there are no signs to prove that this action was the work of Israel.

"They [the drones] took off from inside Iran, they flew like a few hundred meters and then they were downed, they were struck by our air defense. It's not even proven that there is a connection between these and Israel," Amir-Abdollahian said through an Iranian official interpreter.

"Two or three, they're more like toys that our children play with, not drones. It was not worth telling us," he said when asked whether any other country had warned Tehran in advance about an expected attack.

Earlier, Hossein Deliriyan, the spokesman for Iran's National Center for Cyberspace, also dismissed the U.S. media reports saying in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that "there has been no air attack from outside the borders on Isfahan or other parts of the country."

Speaking at a mosque on April 19, President Ebrahim Raisi didn’t mention the attack near Isfahan and with the Israeli retaliation limited in size and scope, experts said it appeared it was aimed at deescalating soaring tensions while still sending a clear message to Tehran.

Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in the early morning hours of April 14, almost all of which were shot down by Israeli defense systems, along with intercepts by forces from the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan.

The attack by Tehran had been widely anticipated in Israel following a suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, on April 1 that killed two brigadier generals.

Since then, diplomats and politicians around the world, fearing another major escalation of fighting in the Middle East, had urged restraint as they awaited Israel's response.

U.S. President Joe Biden has not made any statement about the alleged Israeli attack.

However, according to Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Washington informed the Group of Seven nations (G7) that it had received word from Israel on the strikes at the "last minute," but “there was no sharing of the attack by the U.S. It was a mere information.”

“I’m not going to speak to that [the suspected Israeli attack] except to say that the United States has not been involved in any offensive operations,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after a G7 ministerial meeting on the Italian island of Capri.

Iran's state news agency IRNA said air-defense systems fired from a large air base in Isfahan that is home to Iran's aging fleet of U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats acquired before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Isfahan also houses facilities that are part of Iran's nuclear program, including its underground Natanz enrichment site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had seen no damage to Iran's nuclear sites. Earlier this week, the sites were rumored to be a possible target if Israel launched a strike inside Iran.

One of Iran’s top nuclear facilities, the installation at Natanz, is located in central Isfahan. Such sites have seen several sabotage attacks that Tehran has blamed on Israel.

"IAEA can confirm that there is no damage to Iran’s nuclear sites," the UN nuclear watchdog said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

"Director General Rafael Grossi continues to call for extreme restraint from everybody and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts. IAEA is monitoring the situation very closely."

Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades, but this was the first direct attack by one on the other's soil instead of through proxy forces or by targeting each other's assets operating in third countries.

Updated

Ukrainian, Russian Forces Intensify Drone, Missile War

A fragment of a Russian missile is seen in as a farmer works on his field in Izyum, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on April 20.
A fragment of a Russian missile is seen in as a farmer works on his field in Izyum, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on April 20.

Ukrainian and Russian forces attacked the opposing side's energy infrastructure and armament-production sites overnight into April 20, officials said, as the warring forces intensified drone and missile strikes ahead of an expected vote in the U.S. Congress on desperately needed military aid to Ukraine.

The Defense Ministry in Kyiv said Ukraine hit eight Russian regions with long-range drones, striking and setting on fire a fuel depot and blasting three power substations, confirming an earlier report by Reuters that cited intelligence sources.

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"At least three electrical substations and a fuel storage base were hit, where fires ignited," the Ukrainian intelligence source told Reuters, citing videos on social media purportedly showing the blazes.

The local governor in Russia's western Smolensk region said a reservoir with fuel and oil lubricants had been hit by indirect fire.

"As a result of the work of [Russia’s] air-defense forces, the aircraft were shot down. However, as a result of falling debris, a tank with fuel and oil lubricants caught fire," he said.

Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems shot down 50 Ukrainian drones over eight Russian regions, including 26 over Belgorod near the border and 10 more over the Bryansk region.

Two people were killed in a fire ignited by falling debris in a Belgorod village, regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on Telegram.

Meanwhile, Ukraine said Russian forces launched seven missiles from Belgorod region and the Black Sea at targets in Ukraine on April 20.

Two Kinzhal guided air missiles were destroyed by Ukraine's air-defense systems, Ukraine’s air force said, adding it had also shot down three Russian reconnaissance drones.

Battlefield claims on either side could not immediately be verified.

Freed From Prison In The Donbas, Journalist Joins Ukrainian Forces On Front Lines
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Russia in recent weeks has drastically increased the number of missile and drone attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure amid dwindling Ukrainian stocks of air-defense systems and ammunition, causing large numbers of civilian casualties and extensive damage.

Ukraine said Russian forces struck a residential buildings in the northeastern city of Vovchansk, killing at least two people.

"A direct hit was recorded on a nine-story residential building," a regional official said.

“A woman and a man were injured. Both victims are 61 years old. At other addresses, two men aged 50 and 84 died as a result of shelling in the city."

Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov posted a photo on Telegram showing a pile of rubble next to the collapsed section of what he said was a residential block.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian Services, Current Time, AP, AFP, and Reuters

Srebrenica Genocide Must Be Condemned, Denial Banned, 2 Members Of Bosnian Presidency Tell UN

Denis Becirovic (left), Zlatko Lagumdzija (center), and Azir Osmanovic at a UN session in New York on April 19.
Denis Becirovic (left), Zlatko Lagumdzija (center), and Azir Osmanovic at a UN session in New York on April 19.

The 1995 genocide in Srebrenica must be globally condemned, support for victims must be expressed, and denial of genocide and glorification of war criminals be banned to prevent future similar tragedies, two members of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina told a UN session on April 19.

Denis Becirovic and Zeljko Komsic of Bosnia's presidency made the remarks along with Azir Osmanovic, a survivor from Srebrenica, at the UN headquarters in New York.

A third member of the presidency, Zeljka Cvijanovic -- who represents the Serbian entity -- is banned from U.S. entry due to sanctions imposed for violating the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, and didn’t attend the session.

Germany and Rwanda initiated talks regarding a resolution on the Srebrenica genocide. Voice of America, citing unnamed sources, reported that the United States, Albania, Finland, New Zealand, Turkey, and other countries are also participating in the drafting of the text.

UN member nations are expected to vote on the final resolution, which is still being worked on, at a session of the UN General Assembly in early May.

In a draft seen by RFE/RL, the resolution calls for, among other things, the "condemnation without reservation" of any denial of the genocide in Srebrenica, as well as actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, including those responsible for the genocide.

The resolution would declare July 11 as the International Day of Remembrance for the Genocide in Srebrenica.

In July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Potocari near the eastern town of Srebrenica -- the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

The massacre has been deemed genocide by various verdicts of both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague established that the killings constituted genocide.

So far, more than 50 individuals have been sentenced to some 700 years in prison for their roles in the Srebrenica genocide.

A Doctor Hid Bones Of Srebrenica Victims In His Garden. He's Still Practicing.
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The move to draft a UN resolution has been opposed by Milorad Dodik, the Russia-friendly leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic-Serb entity, Republika Srpska, who threatened that if the document is adopted, "Republika Srpska will withdraw from the decision-making process in Bosnia."

Dodik, who has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain over his efforts to undermine the Dayton Peace Accords, has regularly reiterated his denial of the Srebrenica genocide.

Dodik told supporters at a rally in Banja Luka on April 18 that the actions of the Republika Srpska army in Srebrenica in 1995 were "a mistake that left the crime," but he denied it was genocide.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo condemned the remarks by Dodik and other Bosnian-Serb leaders, saying the comments were “reprehensible and irresponsible. “

“Genocide denial insults victims of all ethnicities and compounds the suffering of their families. It tears at the fabric of the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina, threatens [Bosnia’s] stability, and is illegal under [Bosnian] law.”

Separately on April 19, the Srebrenica Memorial Center demanded an urgent public statement from the Iranian Embassy after remarks made by Iran’s ambassador to Serbia, Rashid Hassan Pur Baei, regarding Srebrenica.

When asked on Belgrade TV what he thought about the proposed UN resolution, he said "that a crime was committed there, but that this fact is presented in an improper manner."

"It is absolutely reprehensible that they are using this event as a political instrument for their goals. There is a hidden agenda behind it. Serbia admits that a crime took place there, but the presentation of the Serbian people as a genocidal people is absolutely with political intentions and political goals," the ambassador reportedly said.

U.S. National Dies In Occupied Donetsk, Says Russian Journalist

Russian journalist Margarita Simonyan announced the news on Telegram.
Russian journalist Margarita Simonyan announced the news on Telegram.

Russell Bentley, a U.S. national, has died in the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk in Ukraine, Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia's state media outlet RT, wrote on Telegram on April 19. Simonyan said Bentley had been "fighting there for our guys" and working with Russia's Sputnik news service. She did not say how he died. Bentley, born in 1960, a self-declared supporter of Russian-backed forces in Ukraine whom Russian state media had described as a war correspondent, reportedly went missing on April 8, police in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region said in a statement last week.

Imprisoned Mother Of Chechen Activists Loses Bid For Early Release For Health Reasons

Zarema Musayeva (file photo)
Zarema Musayeva (file photo)

Zarema Musayeva, the imprisoned mother of three self-exiled outspoken Chechen opposition activists, has lost a bid for early release because of her medical condition after health officials in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya changed her diagnosis.

Musayeva's lawyer, Aleksamdr Savin, told the Team Against Torture human rights group on April 19 that a medical commission in Chechnya replaced Musayeva's previous diagnosis -- type 2 diabetes with multiple complications -- with a new one -- type 2 diabetes without complications.

"The new diagnosis excludes the possibility for Musayeva to get an early release on grounds of her state of health," Savin said.

Savin said last month that his client, who is serving a five-year term in a colony settlement -- a dormitory-like penitentiary located near an industrial facility where convicts work alongside regular employees -- was hospitalized in late March after her eyesight deteriorated sharply and swellings appeared on her body.

Human rights groups have said that Musayeva needs proper medical assistance as she has an acute form of diabetes, a cataract, and a constant pain in her knee.

Musayeva is the mother of Ibragim, Abubakar, and Baisangur Yangulbayev, all of whom have fled the country citing harassment from Chechen authorities over their online criticism of Kremlin-backed Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov.

Chechen police and security officers detained Musayeva in January 2022 in her apartment in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, some 1,800 kilometers from Chechnya, and forcibly returned her to the North Caucasus region's capital, Grozny.

In July, a court in Chechnya sentenced Musayeva to 5 1/2 years in prison on charges of fraud and attacking a police officer, which Musayeva and her supporters have denied.

In September, the Supreme Court of Chechnya shortened Musayeva's prison term by six months and said Musayeva must serve her term in a colony settlement instead of a penitentiary colony.

Kadyrov, other Chechen officials, and a member of the Russian Duma have publicly vowed to kill all members of the Yangulbayev family, calling them "terrorists."

Journalists, rights activists, and other Russians have urged the government to punish those who issued the threats.

Chechen Leaders Step Up Threats To Activist's Family As Kremlin Looks On
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Abubakar Yangulbayev has accused Kadyrov's law enforcement and security officers of "lawlessness on a daily basis in Chechnya" and said the case against his mother is Kadyrov's retaliation for his activities.

Ibragim and Abubakar have said they faced years of pressure from Chechen authorities over their online criticism of Kadyrov and the rights situation in Chechnya.

Many of their relatives have been similarly harassed in Chechnya and even deprived of their homes since Kadyrov and his people vowed to kill them and their families.

The activists' father, retired federal judge Saidi Yangulbayev, and a sister fled Russia in January 2022, following the threats.

Russian and international human rights groups have for years accused Kadyrov of overseeing grave human rights abuses, including abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and the persecution of the LGBT community.

Kremlin critics say Putin has turned a blind eye to the abuses because he relies on the former rebel commander to control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya.

Ukraine, Israel Aid Advances In Rare House Vote As Democrats Help Republicans

The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance. (file photo)
The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance. (file photo)

With rare bipartisan momentum, the U.S. House of Representatives pushed ahead on April 19 on a foreign aid package of $95 billion for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and humanitarian support as a robust coalition of lawmakers helped it clear a procedural hurdle to reach final votes this weekend. The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance overwhelmingly by 316 votes to 94. Final House approval could come this weekend, when the package would be sent to the Senate.

Detained Former Karabakh Separatist Official Begins Hunger Strike, Says Family

Ruben Vardanian (file photo)
Ruben Vardanian (file photo)

Ruben Vardanian, a former Russian citizen of Armenian descent who served as prime minister in the de facto government of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has begun a hunger strike in a Baku prison, his family said on April 19. Vardanian, a billionaire banker who had renounced his Russian citizenship, was arrested and brought to Baku after a military operation by Azerbaijan retook Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic-Armenian forces in September. He served as prime minister of the region from November 2022 to February 2023. He has demanded his release and that of other detained former Karabakh separatist leaders, his family said. Baku hasn't confirmed the hunger strike. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Armenia Agrees To Return 4 Villages To Azerbaijan As First Step To Define Borders

The agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev. (file photo)
The agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev. (file photo)

Armenia has agreed to return four abandoned border villages that it has controlled since the early 1990s to Azerbaijan as the initial step in defining the frontier between the two bitter South Caucasus rivals, the countries said in identical statements on April 19.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said the agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev, which was held at an undisclosed section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

It said the parties reached preliminary agreement that the initial stage of the delimitation process will involve sections between four villages in the territory of Armenia’s northeastern Tavush Province and four abandoned villages that used to be part of Azerbaijan’s northwestern Qazax district.

"Armenia has agreed to return four villages under occupation since the early 1990s," Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizade wrote on social media.

The abandoned former Azerbaijani villages face the Armenian villages and have been under Armenia’s military control since 1991-92, when ethnic clashes between the two former Soviet nations intensified. The proposed border will run between the Armenian and Azerbaijani villages.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought wars over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh -- with more than 30,000 people killed -- as they transitioned into independent countries.

Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning military offensive last year, but much of the border between the countries remains in dispute, with both sides occupying villages that formerly belonged to the other.

The statement says the paired villages are Baghanis (Armenia) and Baganis Ayrum (Azerbaijan), Voskepar (Armenia) and Asagi Askipara (Azerbaijan), Kirants (Armenia) and Xeyrimli (Azerbaijan), and Berkaber (Armenia) and Qizilhacili (Azerbaijan).

According to the statement, the process is aimed at “bringing them in line with the legally established inter-republican border that existed within the framework of the Soviet Union at the time of its disintegration.”

"It was agreed...to continue the process of delimitation of all other sections of the border, including on the issues of enclaves and exclaves."

The agreement comes two days after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian visited three border villages in Tavush to meet with residents and discuss upcoming arrangements, which he said were vital to ensuring Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.

Residents of border villages have expressed concerns that the demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan in accordance with the Soviet-era configuration would deprive them of access to their farmlands and complicate their communication with the rest of the country due to the fact that some sections of the only road they have would fall under Azerbaijani control.

Pashinian pledged his government’s efforts to address the difficulties that local residents might face in connection with the planned border demarcation, including building new sections of the road stretching along the border.

Talking to residents in Berkaber on April 17, Pashinian said that he was putting his political career in the balance so that “Armenia can become a truly independent state.”

Armenian opposition groups have strongly criticized Pashinian for agreeing to discuss the transfer of four formerly Azeri villages to Baku without immediately getting Azerbaijan to withdraw from parts of sovereign Armenian territory that Baku's military captured during a series of border incursions in 2021-22.

Word of the latest agreement comes shortly after the Group of Seven (G7) nations called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain “fully committed” to the peace process as the group’s foreign ministers issued a communique after their meeting in Capri, Italy, on April 19.

In the lengthy statement on various challenges around the world, the top diplomats of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the United States, as well as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also called on Azerbaijan “to fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“We urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain fully committed to the peace process to achieve a dignified and durable peace based on the principles of non-use of force, respect for sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, and territorial integrity,” the part of the communique concerning the South Caucasus reads.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

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