Iraq Boosts Ashura Security
KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) -- Iraq has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to protect Shi'ite pilgrims, part of intensified security measures the government hopes will prevent bloodshed that has marred past religious rites.
Tightened security reflects not only the ongoing threat from Sunni Islamist militants who have targeted Shi'ite ceremonies since 2003, but also the potential political damage major attacks could do ahead of national polls in March.
Over a million pilgrims were expected to converge December 27 in the city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, for the culmination of Ashura, when Shi'ite Muslims commemorate the slaying of the prophet Mohammad's grandson Hussein in Kerbala in 680 AD.
Kerbala Governor Amal al-Hir said 20,000 members of Iraq's security forces had formed eight cordons around the city. A thousand snipers were perched on buildings and troops stood watch with bomb-sniffing dogs and devices to detect explosives.
Hundreds of women will search female pilgrims' voluminous black robes, which have been used to conceal bombs in the past.
Security was intensified too in Baghdad, where many pilgrims began the 80 km (50 mile) walk to Kerbala. Others headed toward an important Shi'ite shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district. Officials shut down vehicle traffic in Kadhimiya to prevent explosives planted in cars or motorcycles.
Despite the added security, there have been casualties in recent days in small-scale attacks targeting pilgrims as they walk in groups or shelter in roadside tents.
A grenade was thrown at pilgrims in northeast Baghdad late on Saturday, wounding five. Earlier in the day in east Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two pilgrims and wounded eight.
For Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, preventing large-scale violence is particularly important before the March 7 general election.
A series of spectacular attacks targeting state buildings in Baghdad has undermined Maliki's position as the man who improved security in Iraq and tackled the worst of the violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The election is expected to be a competitive one, as Maliki and rivals among his fellow Shi'ites try to build cross-sectarian alliances that will appeal to Iraqis fed up with years of violence, disorder and government corruption.
Thousands of worshippers waved giant pictures of Hussein as they crowded outside the Khilani mosque in central Baghdad to hear Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest party representing Iraq's Shi'ite majority.
Hakim, whose party is a member of a coalition that will challenge Maliki, linked Hussein's death to the corruption and nepotism plaguing modern Iraq.
"Today we find history repeating itself ... The followers of Hussein understand the scale of this conspiracy and work hard to confront it. They will not be tempted by money and promises that will vanish after the elections," he told the crowd. "The coming parliamentary polls represent a pivotal, important moment in representing the Hussein epic anew."
In Kerbala, Hir, a member of Maliki's Dawa party, vowed that this year's Ashura rite would not be politicized. "We will not allow this ceremony to be used as propaganda for the elections," he said.
The elections present a major challenge for Iraq's security forces, which have stepped into the lead as U.S. troops prepare to halt combat operations in August 2010.
Iraqi officials acknowledge that Iraqi forces have been vulnerable to infiltration by militants but point to the strides they have made since 2003. This week, they stressed that Iraq, not U.S. forces, was driving the security plans for Ashura.
Serbia Could Become 'Pariah' If Normalization Plan Over Kosovo Rejected, Vucic Warns
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has warned that Serbia could become a “European pariah” completely isolated from the rest of the continent and without access to European funds if it rejects a Western plan for normalizing relations with Kosovo.
Vucic made the comments in a speech to parliament on February 2 in which he faced a hostile response from opposition politicians, who accused him of buckling under pressure from the United States and the European Union to agree to the plan.
Vucic said 90 percent of what has been made public about the proposal so far is correct and said there are good things in the plan. But he said that he would discuss only what is worst for Serbia, adding that more important than the plan is "the political framework, the momentum in which everything happens."
Vucic said the plan stipulates that Serbia wouldn’t object to Kosovo’s inclusion in international organizations, though it wouldn’t have to formally recognize its statehood.
He reiterated that the European-American diplomatic team told him during a meeting in Belgrade last month that there will be consequences if Serbia does not accept the plan. This includes the halting of the accession negotiations with the European Union and the withdrawal of current and future investments in the country, he said.
“We would be a European pariah, completely isolated. No one would talk to us," Vucic said. "We would not have access to European funds," adding that it is in Serbia's "vital interest" to stay on a path to EU membership.
He also stated that Serbia would not be seen as an ally in the conflict in Ukraine “due to the fact that Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia."
Vucic said that Serbia's policy will be to preserve peace and stability at all costs and that Belgrade will continue to back the formation of an association of municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has repeatedly rejected the creation of the association, which was part of an earlier agreement between the parties reached in 2013.
During his speech, Vucic was interrupted by members of the right-wing opposition, who engaged in shouting matches and scuffled with members of Vucic’s ruling party as they urged parliament to reject the plan and accused Vucic of betraying Serbia.
Opposition members chanted, “Treason! Treason!” and, “We won’t give up Kosovo.” They also demanded Vucic's resignation.
He responded by shouting at the protesting lawmakers that they are “thieves and traitors” and said capitulation and surrender were not options.
Kosovo broke away from Serbia after a war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade has never recognized it. Belgrade and Pristina have been in an EU-led dialogue on the normalization of relations since 2011.
The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has been a source of tension in the Balkans since the 1998-99 war, which ended with a NATO bombing campaign. With concern rising about Russia’s influence in the region in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the United States and the European Union recently stepped up efforts to reach a deal to normalize relations.
Vucic said the purpose of the parliamentary session was not to shift the responsibility to the parliament or to the people.
"The purpose is to appear in front of you and the citizens and honestly and openly share what lies ahead and what we are facing," said Vucic. He said he has signed nothing so far and talks on the proposal continue.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Vucic ahead of his speech to parliament to thank him for his “openness to the EU proposal to ensure peace and stability in the region.”
Blinken said on Twitter that this is “of essential importance for the European future of Serbia.”
With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters
U.S. Ambassador's Views On Hungary 'Irrelevant,' Foreign Minister Says
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has accused the U.S. ambassador of trying to interfere in Hungary's internal affairs. At a news conference in Budapest, Szijjarto lashed out at Ambassador David Pressman's comments referring to Hungary's approach to the war in Ukraine as pushing "policies endorsed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin." Szijjarto called Pressman's comments "completely irrelevant" and said it was not Pressman's place to "interfere in Hungary's internal affairs." Pressman has been vocal about a growing wave of anti-American sentiment in Hungary and Hungary's reluctance to join the EU sanctions on Moscow for its war in Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Baltics, Poland Chide IOC For Stance On Russian, Belarusian Athletes At 2024 Olympics
The sports ministers of the three Baltic states and Poland say efforts to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international sports competitions under a neutral flag "legitimize the political decisions and extensive propaganda of these countries" and allow them to use sport as a distraction from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The ministers published a joint statement on February 2 saying efforts by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to restore the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, who were banned after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, were ill-timed given the military conflict continues.
"We must ensure justice and accountability by bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide," the statement said.
"Given the autonomy of the sports movement, we call on all international sports bodies to adopt this firm approach. Since the decision taken by the IOC Executive Board on February 28, 2022, the circumstances have not changed," it added, referring to the IOC decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions just days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
The United States weighed in on the question on February 2, saying it backs allowing athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutrals in the Olympics with no display of national flags or emblems.
If athletes are invited to an international event such as the Olympics, "it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Criticism of the IOC started last month when it indicated it favored neutral status teams from Russia and Belarus, which has lent Moscow logistical support to stage the invasion and subsequent war, at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The IOC has since backtracked, saying last week that sporting sanctions on the two countries were "not negotiable." But some countries remain angered by the Olympic body, saying it hasn't ruled out the possibility of Russian and Belarusian athletes participating under a neutral flag.
"We strongly appreciate all international sports organizations and federations that have removed players and representatives of Russia and Belarus from international competitions and from their organizations, and we urge them not to change their position until Russia and Belarus stop their aggression against Ukraine," the statement from Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland said.
"Bearing in mind the autonomy of the sports movement, we, the Ministers of Sport of the Baltic States and Poland, are convinced that restoring the participation of Russians and Belarusians in international competitions may also put the players in a difficult situation, imposing additional pressure on them related to competing with Russians and Belarusians or being with them and their fans at sporting events," it added.
Special Kosovo Court Upholds Most Convictions Of Two Veterans
Appeals judges at a European Union-backed court have upheld most of the convictions of two leaders of a Kosovo war veterans' association who were found guilty last year of witness intimidation and obstructing justice. The appeals panel of The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers overturned one conviction of Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj but upheld four others. Their original sentences of 4 1/2 years were reduced by three months. The judges said that it was "fundamental to the fulfilment of the Specialist Chambers' mission that individuals who come to give evidence, often about traumatic or difficult experiences, may do so without fear." To read the original story by AP, click here.
Finland, Sweden Committed To Joint NATO Accession, Prime Ministers Say
Finland and Sweden remain committed to joining NATO at the same time despite Turkey's opposition to the Swedish candidacy, the two countries' prime ministers said in Stockholm on February 2. Turkey has said it could approve Finland's NATO membership application ahead of Sweden's, but the Finnish president and foreign minister have both rejected this idea, arguing that the security of the two Nordic countries is mutually dependent. "I don't like this atmosphere, position, where Sweden is presented as a sort of trouble child in the classroom. I don't think this is the case," Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
EU Bank Seeks Pledges Of More Than $2.4 Billion For Ukraine This Year
The European Union's investment bank has called for more budget guarantees from the bloc's 27 members to match or exceed this year the 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) spent in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022. The European Investment Bank (EIB), the EU's lending arm, said it had already disbursed 1.7 billion euros and had another 540 million for ongoing projects. EIB head Werner Hoyer said much more would be needed to rebuild the country from the war, a task the World Bank last September estimated at $350 billion. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Rights Group Says At Least 185 Arrested In Iran's Zahedan In Past Month
A rights group says at least 185 citizens in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan have been arrested in the past month by security forces trying to stifle widespread dissent.
Haalvsh, a group that monitors rights violations of the Sunni minority in Iran, says that it has been able to verify the identity of 125 of the detainees, but added that, due Internet disruptioand repeated threats to families by the security authorities, the number of detainees is estimated at 185 or even higher.
People in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been holding protest rallies every Friday since September 30, when a demonstration turned deadly as security forces of the Islamic republic cracked down hard on demonstrators.
During the so-called Bloody Friday massacre in Zahedan, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces during unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly.
The protests grew even larger following the news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander.
On January 31, the Baloch Activists Campaign reported that plainclothes security officers arrested two Baluch youths in Zahedan and took them to an unknown location. The campaign has identified the pair as Dawood Rakhshani and Akbar Gorgij.
Anger over Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran, but only account for about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Iranian Filmmaker Panahi On Hunger Strike To Protest 'Inhumane' Judiciary
Imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has gone on hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
"I will refuse to eat and drink any food and medicine until the time of my release. I will remain in this state until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison," the director said in a statement released by his wife, Tahereh Saeedi, and his son, Panah Panahi, on their Instagram accounts.
Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.
Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.
Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Eight Dead In Construction Site Fire In Crimea, Says Russian-Installed Governor
At least eight people died in the Crimean city of Sevastopol after an overnight fire in construction workers' temporary accommodation, Russian officials said on February 2. Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Moscow-appointed governor of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, said the fire had broken out in a dormitory for workers building the Tavrida Highway, a new road linking the cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol. Russia's Emergencies Ministry said eight people had died and two were injured. Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and unilaterally annexed it. Kyiv has said it plans to retake the peninsula by force. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Bulgarian President Dissolves Parliament, Sets Early Elections For April 2
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has signed a decree dissolving the parliament and setting April 2 as the date for early elections -- the country's fifth in two years -- after an inconclusive October vote failed to produce a government.
Radev on February 2 also reappointed Galab Donev as caretaker prime minister for the interim period.
The composition of the caretaker government remained almost unchanged, with the exception of outgoing Culture Minister Velislav Minekov, who has been replaced by conductor Nayden Todorov.
Radev had already announced early elections would be needed after Bulgaria's Socialist Party (BSP) said on January 24 that it had failed to form a government and had returned the unfulfilled mandate to the president.
It was the third and final opportunity for a government to be formed under the current legislature, which resulted from the October 2 elections.
Before the socialists' attempt at forming a coalition, the two strongest groups in Bulgaria’s parliament -- the center-right GERB party and the reformist We Continue The Change party, which finished first and second in the October voting -- had each tried and failed to find enough support to form their own governments.
Radev then chose the BSP to fulfill the mandate.
Under the Bulgarian Constitution, Radev was obliged to disband parliament and schedule elections within 60 days of issuing the dissolution decree.
The GERB party of Boyko Borisov, who spent three divisive tenures as prime minister between 2009 and 2021, has been the target of widespread corruption accusations, and most groups have dismissed talk of cooperation with Borisov.
The continuing political crisis is expected to impede the European Union's poorest country's plans to join the euro zone at the end of this year, as well as the timely receipt of billions of euros in EU recovery funds.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
France Seizes Iran Assault Rifles, Missiles Heading To Yemen
French naval forces in January seized thousands of assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles in the Gulf of Oman coming from Iran and heading to Yemen's Huthi rebels, officials said on February 2, the latest such seizure amid the Middle Eastern nation’s long-running civil war. While Iran denied being involved, images of the weapons released by the U.S. military's Central Command showed them to be similar to others captured by American forces in other shipments linked to Tehran. The seizure occurred on January 15. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Austria Expels Four Russian Diplomats
The Austrian Foreign Ministry has announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats for what it said were actions incompatible with their diplomatic status, adding that they must leave the country by February 8. The ministry said in a statement on February 2 that two diplomats worked at the Russian Embassy while the other two were members of Russia's mission to the United Nations in Vienna. No further details were given. There was no immediate reaction from Moscow. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Pakistan Says Peshawar Mosque Bomber Wore Police Uniform, Breached Security On Motorbike
The suicide bomber who killed more than 100 people at a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar this week wore a police uniform and entered the high-security area on a motorbike, a Pakistani provincial police chief said. The bomber behind the attack has been identified as a member of a militant network, the police chief of Khyber Pashtunkhwa Province, Moazzam Jah Ansari, told reporters without giving further details. The bombing was the deadliest in a decade to hit Peshawar, a northwestern city that has suffered decades of Islamist militant violence. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
EU Says It Will Slap Russia With More Sanctions By First Anniversary Of War
The European Union says it plans to hit Russia with a fresh package of punitive measures -- the 10th since the start of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago -- as the bloc prepares to hold a summit with Ukraine's leadership in the capital, Kyiv.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a team of 15 commissioners arrived in Kyiv on February 2 for the first-ever joint meeting with Ukraine's government, with Russia's invasion, launched on February 24 last year, and Ukraine's bid for membership to the bloc on the agenda.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after their meeting, von der Leyen said that sanctions have been exacting a heavy price on Moscow, "throwing it back by a generation," with the EU price cap on oil alone making Russia lose some 160 million euros ($176 million) daily.
Responding to a remark by Zelenskiy, who said Kyiv hopes the bloc's sanctions campaign will gain momentum again after appearing to have "slightly slowed down" recently, von der Leyen said the EU would "introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products, and by the 24th of February -- exactly one year since the invasion started -- we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place."
Von der Leyen also commended the Ukrainian government for taking swift action against corruption -- one of the main conditions advanced by Brussels as mandatory for Kyiv's progress on its path to eventual EU membership.
Ukraine was granted candidate status for membership in the 27-member bloc in June, and Zelenskiy has pledged to root out entrenched corruption that has weakened the effectiveness of state institutions even as the country faced an increasingly aggressive Russia since 2014, culminating in Moscow's unprovoked full-scale invasion.
Von der Leyen's visit comes a day after several high-ranking officials' homes were raided by anti-corruption agents in a second sweep in a week.
"Your determination to join the European Union is impressive," von der Leyen said.
"I'm comforted to see that your anti-corruption bodies are on alert and effective in detecting corruption cases.... I also commend you on reacting so rapidly at the political level to make sure that the fight against corruption is delivering tangible results and is further stepped up," she added.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi are among the members of the delegation to arrive in Kyiv on February 2.
"Arrived in Kyiv to convey EU’s strongest message of support to all Ukrainians defending their country,” Borrell wrote on Twitter, adding, "EU assistance has reached 50 billion euros [$55 billion] since the start of Russia’s war. Europe stood united with Ukraine from day one. And will still stand with you to win and rebuild."
"The meeting will be an opportunity to exchange on the many areas of cooperation between the EU and Ukraine," a commission statement said, calling the event a "strong symbol" of EU support for Ukraine "in the face of Russia's unprovoked and unjustified aggression."
European Council President Charles Michel will arrive for a summit meeting on February 3.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has called the meetings "two extremely important events" for his country's European integration.
With reporting by AFP and AP
Iran Blames Israel For Isfahan Drone Attack, Vows Revenge
Iran blames Israel for a drone attack on a military factory near the central city of Isfahan, the semiofficial ISNA news agency said on February 2, vowing revenge. In a letter to the UN chief, Iran's UN envoy, Amir Saeid Iravani, said a primary investigation suggested Israel was responsible for the attack on January 28. The attack came amid tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear activity and its supply of arms -- including long-range "suicide drones"-- for Russia's war in Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Prominent Political Ally Of Pakistan's Ex-PM Khan Arrested
A prominent Pakistani politician who is also a close ally of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested after police raided his home near Islamabad.
Police said on February 2 that Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who served as interior minister in Khan's government that lost power in April, has accused former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari of plotting to kill Khan.
Islamabad police were expected to bring Ahmed to court and ask for permission to question him to produce evidence supporting his accusation against Zardari.
Ahmed told the media after his arrest that security forces mistreated him, barging into his home in the dark and beating up his staff.
Ahmed is the leader of the Awami Muslim League, a small political party that was in the governing coalition with Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party.
Khan voiced his "strong protest" at Ahmed's arrest in a message on Twitter.
Ahmed's arrest early on February 2 came just hours after Fawad Chaudhry, an information minister in Khan's government and a prominent leader in PTI, was released on bail by an Islamabad court after spending a week in detention.
Chaudhry was arrested on January 25 on charges of "threatening and intimidating" the chief of the country's Election Commission and other members of the election oversight body.
Khan, a 70-year-old former cricket superstar who still enjoys huge popularity as the main opposition leader, was wounded in a gun attack while leading a march toward the capital, Islamabad, in November, to push for early elections.
One of his supporters was killed and several others were wounded in the shooting.
In October, the Election Commission disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years after finding he had unlawfully sold state gifts and concealed assets as prime minister.
Khan has rejected the accusation, and claimed he was toppled in a plot by Sharif and the United States, claims they both deny.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Russia Preparing Major Offensive, Ukrainian Military Says, As Shelling Kills Civilians In Kramatorsk
Ukraine's military says there are clear signs that Russian forces are getting ready for a major push in the east, where a stalemate continues despite months-long heavy fighting and intensive daily shelling by Moscow's troops.
"The enemy is actively conducting reconnaissance, preparing for an offensive in certain directions," Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report early on February 2.
"Despite heavy losses, it continues to attempt offensive actions in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk region]," the General Staff said.
Russian forces launched six missile strikes on Ukrainian targets during the 24 hour-period ending early on February 2. Four of them hit civilian infrastructure in Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Druzhkivka in Donetsk, as well as four air strikes and 73 salvos from multiple-rocket launchers, the military said.
An Iskander-K missile killed at least three people and injured 21 others in Kramatorsk late on February 1, police said. Authorities in the Donetsk region said the missile hit a residential building. Another attack on Kramatorsk on February 2 struck the center of the city.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the missile attack on Kramatorsk was launched to destroy antiaircraft missile systems. Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said M-270 MLRS (multiple-launch rocket system) and M-142 HIMARS (high-mobility artillery rocket system) were destroyed in the Kramatorsk region.
The Russian military has repeatedly justified its attacks on Ukrainian cities as necessary to destroy military equipment and has denied targeting civilians despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 1 said there had been an increase in Russia's operations on the front in the east and said the situation "has become tougher" as the Russians try to make gains that they can show on the first anniversary of the war on February 24.
The secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, also warned that Russia was planning a major attack from multiple directions that could occur around the anniversary of the start of Russia's invasion.
"Russia is preparing for maximum escalation," Danilov told British TV station Sky News on January 31.
"It is gathering everything possible, doing drills and training."
Danilov said the next two or three months will be "the defining months in the war."
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov referred to a transfer of troops, saying Moscow could "try something" to mark the anniversary of the invasion.
Reznikov, speaking to French broadcaster BFM, said Russian troops are massing at the border and according to the Ukrainian military's assessment their number is more than the 300,000 called up in a mobilization in September.
Ukraine last week won pledges from the United States and Germany to send tanks to help it defend itself and has continued actively requesting more modern equipment, including fighter jets and long-range artillery, from its Western allies.
The United States has ruled out any deliveries of F-16 fighter jets for now, but other partners have indicated they are more open to the idea.
The Kremlin has warned that Western military shipments could cause an escalation in the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the tank shipments on February 2 in a speech at events marking the 80th anniversary of the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany in Stalingrad.
Putin, speaking in the southern city of Volgograd, said Russia had an answer for the tanks, in particular the German Leopards, and said the use of armored vehicles "will not end the matter."
The Russian Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying that Russia was being threatened by German tanks "again" as it was during World War II, drawing parallels between the Soviet Union's fight then and Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.
"We aren't sending tanks to their borders, but we have something to respond with, and it won't be just about using armored vehicles. Everyone should understand this," he added.
Russia has also warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was considering doing so, including the so-called Iron Dome antimissile defense system.
Netanyahu also said he is ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine if both sides and the United States agreed.
Israel, which has more than 1 million citizens from the former Soviet Union, has so far sought to maintain neutrality toward the conflict.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Netanyahu Open To Providing Military Aid To Ukraine, Including 'Iron Dome' Missile Defense System
Israel does not reject sending military aid to Ukraine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on February 1 in an interview with CNN. Netanyahu said he was "definitely considering" providing military support to Kyiv. He separately noted that Israel was ready to consider the delivery of the Iron Dome antimissile defense system to Ukraine. Netanyahu also said that he was ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, if both sides and the United States agreed. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
Bust Of Stalin Erected In Volgograd Ahead Of Putin Visit To Mark Anniversary Of WWII Victory
A new bust of Soviet leader Josef Stalin has been unveiled in Volgograd ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the city on February 2, the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Army's victory over German forces in a key World War II battle in the city then known as Stalingrad.
The bust was unveiled on February 1 along with two others dedicated to Soviet commanders Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilyevsky outside the Battle of Stalingrad Museum.
Putin is due to visit Volgograd on February 2 for anniversary celebrations at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex on the banks of the Volga River.
The Battle of Stalingrad, which ended on February 2, 1943, is estimated to have claimed 2 million casualties and is widely seen by historians as the point when invading Nazi German forces were forced onto the defensive.
The southern city went by the name Tsaritsyn until it was renamed Stalingrad in 1925. It became Volgograd in 1961, eight years after Stalin’s death and after his legacy fell out of favor.
Under Stalin, millions of Soviet citizens were killed, tortured, imprisoned, or exiled by the Soviet state. He also presided over a famine that killed millions in Ukraine and other Soviet states.
Nostalgia for Stalin and for the Soviet Union has flourished under Putin, who has sought to rehabilitate the communist dictator as the leader who not only fought off the Germans during WWII but also turned the U.S.S.R. into a world power.
There have been rumors on Telegram and other social media that during Putin’s visit a decision will be made to restore the name Stalingrad. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week said he could not confirm anything when asked whether there were discussions in the Kremlin about the possibility of renaming the city, according to TASS.
Volgograd’s World War II veterans recently proposed renaming the city in memory of the Battle of Stalingrad. In response to their request, regional Governor Andrei Bocharov announced the creation of a civic council to study public opinion on the matter, TASS said.
During the unveiling ceremony of the bust of Stalin, an honor guard laid flowers at the three monuments. Honorary citizens of Volgograd and representatives of a youth movement, as well as veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, attended the ceremony, TASS reported.
The chairman of the Volgograd Regional Duma, Aleksandr Bloshkin, called Stalin, Zhukov, and Vasilevsky "the architects of the Stalingrad victory."
Bloshkin said that, while in “unfriendly countries” similar monuments are being removed and everything associated with Soviet soldiers is being destroyed, Russia is taking a different course “to preserve the memory of the Great Patriotic War.”
The new bust is the second of Stalin in the city. Members of the local Communist Party in December 2019 installed a sculpture dedicated to Stalin on the grounds of the party’s regional committee.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and TASS
Fierce Fighting In Eastern Ukraine Amid Signs Russia Plans War-Anniversary Offensive
The situation on the front line in eastern Ukraine has become tougher, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on February 1 as Russian forces pressed ahead with efforts on the ground to capture towns and cities in the Donetsk region while continuing air strikes against other locations.
The General Staff of Ukraine's military said in its daily report early on February 1 that the enemy “has not paused its offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions" in the eastern region of Donetsk.
Russia also kept pressing its attacks on the town of Vuhledar, some 150 kilometers southeast of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, which has been the focal point of the monthslong battle in Donetsk.
"A definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country. The situation has become tougher," Zelenskiy said in his evening video address.
Zelenskiy said the Russians were trying to make gains that they could show on the first anniversary of the war on February 24.
The fighting killed at least two people and wounded seven others in Kramatorsk. The head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said a Russian rocket struck a residential building in Kramatorsk late on February 1.
Russian shelling of Bakhmut killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 on January 31, Ukraine’s presidential office said. Kyrylenko posted images of the shelling aftermath showing huge holes in residential buildings and saying that Russia is “actively deploying new military personnel.”
Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around Bakhmut, but the Kremlin-controlled paramilitary Wagner Group denied that Bakhmut was encircled.
The governor of the northern Chernihiv region, Vyacheslav Chaus, said four local residents died in the basement of a private house due to shelling by Russian troops on February 1. One person was injured and taken to a medical facility, Chaus said on Telegram.
The northern command of the Ukrainian military reported that Russian troops continued to shell border settlements in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions.
It was not possible to verify battlefield claims.
Serhiy Hayday, the regional governor in Ukraine's Luhansk region, said earlier that Moscow's forces were expelling residents near occupied parts of the front line so they can't disclose Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery forces.
“There is an active transfer of [Russian troops] to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Hayday said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov referred to a transfer of troops, saying Moscow could "try something" to mark the anniversary of the invasion last year. Reznikov, speaking to French broadcaster BFM, said Russian troops are massing at the border and, according to the Ukrainian military's assessment, their number is more than the 300,000 called up in a mobilization in September.
Ukraine last week won pledges from the United States and Germany to send tanks to help it defend itself and has continued actively requesting more modern equipment, including fighter jets and long-range artillery, from its Western allies. The United States has ruled out any deliveries of F-16 fighter jets for now, but other partners have indicated they are more open to the idea.
The Kremlin has warned that Western military shipments could cause an escalation in the conflict.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated that Russia will consider all weapons supplied by other countries “to be legitimate targets for Russia's armed forces."
Russia also warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was considering doing so, including the so-called Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.
Netanyahu also said he is ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine if both sides and the United States agreed.
Since the beginning of the Russian offensive last year, Israel has sought to maintain neutrality by adopting a cautious position toward Moscow. Israel has emphasized that it has more than a million citizens from the former Soviet Union living in Israel.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Ukraine Lawmaker Calls On U.S. To Target China, India Energy Purchases From Russia
A senior Ukrainian lawmaker has called for the United States to impose secondary sanctions on China and India if they keep buying Russian energy. Oleksandr Merezhko said he has faced criticism at home that a tougher stance on oil purchases could push China to step up support to Russia. Speaking on February 1 during a visit to Washington, he said this is not the problem because “China is not afraid of Ukraine. China is afraid of American sanctions." This means the United States can deter China from helping Russia by introducing secondary sanctions to stop China from financing the Russian economy and military machine.
Police Officers In Peshawar Demonstrate To Demand Thorough Investigation Of Mosque Bombing
Dozens of police officers protested in Peshawar on February 1 to demand the government conduct a full and transparent investigation of a suicide attack on a mosque earlier this week that killed 101 people and injured 221 others.
The attack on January 30 killed mostly police officers in the Sunni mosque located inside a high-security police facility.
The police who protested on February 1 gathered in front of the Peshawar Journalists' Center and were joined by civil and political activists.
Sajid Ali, one of the protesters, told RFE/RL that the police officers were compelled to protest to put pressure on authorities and because police officers “are dying amid this terrorism and insecurity.”
Ali Daraz, another protester, said police officers want answers about how the explosives got into the compound and said he believes there were at least two suicide bombers because of the amount of destruction. Daraz added that there have been complaints for years about a lack of equipment to fight terrorists.
"It seems like there were many explosives used there because even two suicide bombers could not cause that much destruction," he told RFE/RL.
The attack in Peshawar, capital of the volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan, was one of the deadliest that targeted Pakistani security forces in recent years.
The interim government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has formed a team to investigate the attack, including how a major security breach could happen in a compound that houses intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus.
Eyewitnesses told Radio Mashaal that suicide bombers standing in the first row in the compound's mosque behind the imam detonated explosive vests as worshippers gathered for the afternoon prayers in the Police Line Mosque on January 30.
A commander for the Pakistani Taliban known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) initially claimed responsibility for the attack, but hours later, TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani denied involvement, saying it was not the group's policy to target mosques, seminaries, and religious places.
Ibrahim Kamil, a participant in the protest and a leading member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, told RFE/RL that a number of policemen are now feeling insecure about their own security.
There have been dozens of attacks in recent years, but the January 30 attack was a different incident because "people who protect us are facing so much danger in their own mosque."
Kamil added that the investigation should determine how the assailants got past checkpoints to enter the building and the mosque.
With reporting by AFP
Bulgarian Parliament Passes Resolution Declaring Soviet-Era Famine Genocide
The Bulgarian National Assembly has approved legislation declaring the 1932-33 famine caused by the policies of the Soviet government led by Joseph Stalin a genocide.
The decision came in a 134-25 vote on February 1 on a resolution backing the combined proposals of the Democratic Bulgaria and GERB parties.
The resolution says that any "denial, justification, or underestimation of this genocide flouts the memory of the millions of people who perished." It also calls for the last Saturday of November to be declared a day of honor and remembrance for the victims of the famine, known as the Holodomor.
Members of the far-right Vazrazhdane (Revival) party and Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) parliamentary groups, which often take pro-Russian positions, spoke against declaring the resolution.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude to Bulgaria for declaring the Holodomor a genocide, saying on Twitter that the move "commemorates millions of Holodomor victims and restores historical justice."
Bulgaria’s gesture of solidarity "will always be remembered in Ukraine," he added.
Kyiv has urged the international community to officially declare the Holodomor a genocide as Ukraine confronts Moscow's ongoing full-scale invasion.
The Holodomor took place as Stalin's police units forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.
Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.
It is estimated that up to 9 million people died as a result of executions, deportation, and starvation during the Stalin-era campaign.
The Bulgarian National Assembly's move comes six weeks after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognize the famine as a genocide.
The resolution passed on December 15 called it an "artificial famine" caused by "a deliberate policy of the Soviet regime."
Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of the Vazrazhdane in the Bulgarian General Assembly, acknowledged that there was "a massacre by starvation of millions of people" in the Soviet Union in 1932-33, but he said the goal was not based on the victims' ethnicity, rather their class.
Borislav Gutsanov of the BSP opposed the proposal being put to a vote.
Earlier on February 1, the Vazrazhdane and BSP groups left the assembly hall, while their colleagues marked the day of appreciation and respect for the victims of the communist regime in Bulgaria.
With reporting by AFP
New U.S. Sanctions Target Russian Arms Trader's Global Network, Treasury Department Says
The United States has imposed Russian-related sanctions on 22 individuals and entities in multiple countries that the U.S. Treasury Department says are part of a global network set up to evade previously announced sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed the new sanctions on February 1, designating individuals and entities in the network, which OFAC said supports Russia’s military-industrial complex.
The actions are part of a strategy to target sanctions evasion efforts around the globe, expose facilitators, and ultimately limit Russia’s access to revenue needed to wage its war in Ukraine, the department said in a news release.
“Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to re-supply [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war machine,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo.
The network is led by Russian- and Cypriot-based arms dealer Igor Zimenkov, who has worked closely with his son, Jonatan Zimenkov, within the network to enable Russian defense sales to third-country governments, the department said.
The network has engaged in projects connected to Russian defense capabilities, including supplying high-technology devices, since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Treasury said.
Certain members of the network have also supported sanctioned Russian defense entities Rosoboroneksport and State Corporation Rostec, which the Treasury said are key parts of Russia’s military-industrial complex.
Igor Zimenkov maintains close relationships with people associated with Rosoboroneksport and has provided information to Rostec personnel abroad, while Jonatan Zimenkov has maintained powers of attorney for companies in the Zimenkov network on behalf of his father, according to the Treasury.
They have additionally been involved in multiple deals for Russian cybersecurity and helicopter sales to South American countries and have engaged directly with Rosoboroneksport’s potential clients to enable sales of Russian defense materiel, according to the department.
Igor Zimenkov has also supported the Belarusian military-industrial complex by facilitating sales efforts in Latin America of Belarusian defense entity State Owned Foreign Trade Unitary Enterprise Belspetsvneshtechnika (BSVT). BSVT was previously designated for its links to the government of Belarus, as well as for operating in the defense and related materiel sector of the Belarus economy.
Among the members of the network were “front companies” used to funnel money within the network. These companies, which were also designated for sanctions, are based in Singapore, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Israel. Several people associated with the companies also were designated.
The sanctions designations freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction held by the individuals and entities. They also inhibit their access to global financial markets and bar people based in the U.S. from dealing with them.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Bulgaria, Serbia Break Ground On Pipeline Aimed At Easing Russian Gas Dependence
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, have launched the construction of a gas pipeline that will link the two countries and help ease the region's dependence on Russian supplies, which have become less reliable amid Moscow's war against Ukraine.
Attending a groundbreaking ceremony in the Bulgarian town of Kostinbrod on February 1, the two leaders shook hands where one end of the 170-kilometer link -- 109 kilometers of which will run through Serbia -- will be built.
"This is a big thing, a European project. We will supply other countries via our country," Vucic said.
The link, which will have a capacity of 1.8 billion cubic meters of gas annually, will allow gas from Azerbaijan to flow all the way to Western Europe, while also giving Serbia access to liquefied natural gas coming through from ports in Greece.
"It gives new opportunities to the region through real diversification and security of deliveries," Radev added.
In a show of the link's regional importance, European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson also attended the ceremony. The 85.5-million-euro project will receive 25 million euros from the European Investment Bank (EIB), as well as 49.6 million euros in co-financing by the European Union. Serbia will supply the rest of the funding needed to complete the pipeline.
Even before the effect of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on gas supplies to Europe, Bulgaria and Serbia have tried to diversify from a deep reliance on Russian supplies.
In 2009, the two countries were hit hard by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over pricing that slashed deliveries and left many in Europe cold over the winter.
Sofia then moved quickly to establish a link with Greece to begin accepting supplies from Azerbaijan.
That gas pipeline is part of a broad EU initiative called the Southern Gas Corridor, which aims to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas. The main source of supply would be the Shah Deniz gas field located in the Caspian Sea, in territory belonging to Azerbaijan.
While Bulgaria has been critical of Moscow's war in Ukraine, Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia, has maintained good relations.
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